TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs have some small say Friday in determining their own first-round playoff opponent, but they’ll be speaking their piece in a whisper.
“We want to get through the game healthy,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said Friday morning, ahead of the regular-season finale against the Boston Bruins.
“It's about making sure our players and our team is in the best position possible when it starts on Monday. So, our decisions don’t change at all.”
Chief among those decisions is healthy-scratching a trio of star forwards — Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares — and resting Number 1 goaltender Jack Campbell for maximum freshness come Game 1.
“[Campbell] didn't feel he needed to play tonight’s game. In fact, he wants to continue to work on some things in practice,” Keefe said. “We’re on the same page there, so it’s an easy one for us to give [Erik] Källgren.”
With home-ice advantage already locked up, the Maple Leafs will roll with a rare seven-defenceman lineup and spread minutes around with its depth forwards Friday, calling up Marlies forward Joey Anderson as a placeholder.
If the visiting Bruins can defeat the Leafs and the Islanders beat the Lightning in any fashion, or if the Bruins earn a point in Toronto and the Isles take care of business in any fashion, we’re staring at another Bruins-Leafs tilt in Round 1.
Otherwise, the Leafs will draw Tampa and wild-card Boston will cross over to face the Metropolitan Division–winning Carolina Hurricanes.
Juicy stuff for an otherwise meaningless game. (Especially when you consider the Islanders may be inspired to exact some small revenge on the club that ended their 2021 playoff run in dramatic style.)
“Because we played Tampa twice recently and because there was a higher probability of playing them, we focused on that. And yet, we have this game of Boston here, so we've been looking at them as well,” Keefe said.
“You playing to win and coaching to win tonight, while being mindful of players’ minutes.”
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, winner of four straight, is resting (deep breath) Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm, Taylor Hall, Erik Haula, and Matt Grzelcyk.
“I fully suspect Boston is going to be a shell of themselves tonight here as well — and they could still move in the standings,” Keefe said.
“From my understanding of it, Tampa is really tight to the cap and doesn't have much of flexibility to move their lineup around.”
Wayne Simmonds doesn’t have much time for these reindeer games, however.
“Two really good teams,” Simmonds said. “But the focus, I think, should be on ourselves.”
Heck of a reward for the greatest regular season in franchise history: Do you want to face the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs? Or the franchise that left you gutted following Game 7 in three of your past six trips to the dance?
“We’ve put ourselves in a good spot. No matter who it's gonna end up being, Boston or Tampa, it’s a significant challenge. Both teams are playing extremely well,” Keefe said.
“That we’re in Game 82 and there's nothing really separating them in the standings shows just how good they are. The fact that we didn't clinch home ice until Game 81, despite setting franchise records and having a terrific season, shows just how tight the division is.
“So, we're ready for a battle — no matter who it is.”