NHL Playoff Push: Maple Leafs try to hold off charging Bruins

Auston Matthews and David Pastrnak watch the play unfold in a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. (Claus Andersen/Getty)

One month from now it will be the last day of the NHL regular season and we'll be talking a lot about first-round matchups and post-season hopes. And, judging by how the standings look today, we might even still be looking for some Round 1 series to be locked in.

The standings are tight — especially in the Eastern Conference — and there are some fantastic possibilities on the table for Round 1 series. Tuesday night brings another exciting slate of games. Here's what we're looking at tonight and keeping in mind for the rest of the week.


Must-see game: Toronto at Boston on Tuesday night

It was an interesting question posed and explored last week by our own Justin Bourne: would the Maple Leafs have a better chance against Boston or Tampa Bay in Round 1? The answer? It's, well, complicated.

Sure — who wants to face the back-to-back champs in Round 1? Andrei Vasilevskiy is scary enough in a best-of-seven on his own, never mind the loaded roster in front of him. But Boston brings a certain baggage with it to Toronto, with series wins in 2013, 2018 and 2019, all in seven games, and all within reach for the Maple Leafs. And don't think this Bruins team is any softer a touch with its most important veterans older now.

Since Jan. 1 the Bruins are 27-9-3, which is third by points percentage across the whole league behind Colorado and Florida. Their 5-on-5 shots, expected goals, and scoring chances against all rank second-best in that time. Jeremy Swayman has a .931 save percentage since that date, too, and will start on Tuesday. He's supposedly the one part of the lineup you can point to as unproven and perhaps why Leafs fans should prefer a matchup with Boston in Round 1 — but he's really settled in and taken over since Tuukka Rask retired.

The Leafs have some demons to exorcise here. Boston very quickly came up from behind, now challenging for second place in the division and seemingly peaking. Meantime, the Leafs have serious questions in net that seem to calm for a game or two before bubbling up again, and until Jack Campbell returns to the crease we may not know how truly dire that situation is. The second line hasn't been clicking — the combo of John Tavares and William Nylander have been outscored 40-32 at 5-on-5 this season and Nylander has been criticized by the coach recently for his play.

A win for Boston Tuesday and the Maple Leafs will suddenly find themselves sitting in a wild card position and pondering a possible first-round matchup with either Florida or Carolina. Panic would undoubtedly ensue on the airwaves.

This one in Boston should have a playoff atmosphere to it and will be a test for the Leafs especially. It is the second-last time they'll meet this regular season, with the final showdown coming on the last day of the regular season.

Let's overreact to...

Igor Shesterkin is a near-lock for the Vezina at this point, and a Hart Trophy candidate. First in save percentage (.936), goals saved above average (37.44), and third in GAA (2.11) Shesterkin has been New York's most important player — and that's saying something given they have Chris Kreider at 44 goals, Adam Fox (third in defenceman scoring) and Artemi Panarin (top 15 in league scoring). In the first five months of the season, Shesterkin allowed four or more goals in a game just three times, a great run of consistency. But now Shesterkin has allowed four goals or more in three of his past six starts, all of them happening on the road. The latest was a 7-4 loss to New Jersey in which Shesterkin was pulled after allowing five goals in 40 minutes.

It's not that this should be a cause for worry, but it is worth noting in the midst of a tight playoff race for the team, and individual awards race, especially for MVP. The Rangers play back-to-back road games in Pittsburgh and Detroit Tuesday and Wednesday, Shesterkin will likely face the Penguins challenge and then tend the net at home Friday against the Islanders.

Player Of Interest: Mackenzie Weegar

Now that the Florida Panthers are a real Cup front runner, they're getting more national attention — and that will come into focus as the stakes rise. For the longest time, Aleksander Barkov was the "underrated" player to celebrate on the Panthers, but he's closer to mainstream now that he has a Selke Trophy. I submit that Mackenzie Weegar is the Panther now most deserving of some shine.

Florida's No. 1 defenceman right now, Weegar usually flies in Aaron Ekblad's shadow on the top pairing. Now that Ekblad is out until the playoffs, Weegar is playing with Ben Chiarot on the top pair and proving all over again that he's valuable on his own.

I say "all over again" because we saw this last season as well. After Ekblad went down with a fractured leg last March, Weegar finished the final 19 regular season games with a 59.4 CF%. The Panthers controlled over 60 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots when he was on the ice, over 71 per cent of the goals and Weegar himself finished with 17 points in those final 19 games — fifth-most among all NHL defencemen in that time.

This season, the points haven't yet come since Ekblad was knocked out on March 18, but Weegar has logged over 25 minutes in each of the three games since and all his underlying measures are similarly impressive. He doesn't get much power-play time and, in Ekblad's absence, the Panthers seem more inclined to use a five-forward unit. But Weegar is ninth in even-strength scoring among all NHL defencemen this season and it's not all because of situation. This is a player to take notice of.


Must-see game: Colorado at Calgary on Tuesday night

Is this the Western Conference Final matchup of choice?

Two of the top four teams in the league all season long, Colorado and Calgary have already treated us twice this month, a 4-3 OT win for Calgary and, eight days later, a 3-0 win for Colorado, both at Ball Arena. Now this one moves to the Saddledome for a March series tied at 1, and with Calgary coming off a circus-game win, 9-5 over Edmonton Saturday night.

It's quite incredible how the conversation around the Flames has flipped this season. Lost in the wilderness and on the brink of some monumental change after a disastrous time in the temporary North Division, we forgot that Calgary was Canada's best team from the November 2019 firing of Bill Peters until the league hit pause in March 2020. And they showed alright in those summer playoffs, too, upending the Jets and then taking the finalist Dallas Stars to six games.

Now we look at this team and wonder how it ever went so wrong? Darryl Sutter is well on track to win the Jack Adams, Jacob Markstrom has a Vezina Finalist shot and Johnny Gaudreau, tied for third in NHL scoring, is one-third of one of the league's top lines and hanging around the Hart Trophy discussion. Last year it seemed inevitable he would be lost to free agency or traded before then — now we have to ponder what the Flames will pay him to stick around, or how a playoff performance will impact that decision. And we haven't even talked about Matthew Tkachuk yet, tied for sixth in NHL scoring with an RFA contract coming up this summer.

But while Calgary's ascent has been sudden and somewhat unexpected, Colorado's has been predicted and steady. But this is also a team for whom the regular season is just a preamble to a very important post-season. For all their potential greatness, the Avs haven't gotten beyond the second round with this core, which will have only two more shots (this season and next) with Nathan MacKinnon making a bargain $6.4 million against the cap. Josh Manson was Colorado's big pickup on defence on the trade market and Artturi Lehkonen was the addition up front — he figures to make his debut with the team on Tuesday.

If Colorado is to really get over the hump and reach their full potential, they might have to get past the Flames come playoff time. Tuesday's game is another test for both of them.

Let's overreact to...

The St. Louis Blues weren't as active at the trade deadline as some thought they would be, but that's OK, given that the Western Conference was generally quieter than the East. But did they need a little more help than Nick Leddy?

They've been 4-6-3 this month and, as the rival Minnesota Wild have surged with eights wins in their past 10, it's leaving the Blues vulnerable to falling out of the race for Round 1 home ice advantage.

Jordan Binnington hasn't taken back the net yet, nor is he really pushing too hard to do it, but it should be noted the good story of Ville Husso is subsiding somewhat. Husso, who has earned more starts lately, has allowed four goals or more on four occasions this month, totalling a .900 save percentage in March. A 4-1 win over Vancouver Monday night was important, but it's one they should win — the Blues are supposed to be a tier, or two, above the Canucks. Saturday's 7-2 thud of a loss to Carolina was troubling.

The Blues are a team you probably don't want to draw in Round 1. They can step up and you should expect them to be tough to play against. But they also lost in four games to Colorado last season in Round 1 and are now hitting a bump at the wrong time again. Can they right the ship in time to peak come playoffs, or will they risk falling into a wild card where they would draw Calgary or Colorado? (Those would be some pretty great series.)

Player Of Interest: Phillip Danault

We know all about his defence after seeing Danault's impact on Montreal's run to the Cup Final last season. If the standings hold and Los Angeles and Edmonton end up facing each other in Round 1 of the playoffs, it will be fascinating to watch the Danault-Kopitar centre duo against the McDavid-Draisaitl powerhouse. And we'll get another glimpse of that this week when the Kings and Oilers face each other Wednesday.

But what's also interesting is that Danault has been rather productive offensively in 2022. He had just four goals through December, but has scored 17 since. In fact, Danault is third in the league with 15 goals at 5-on-5 since Jan. 1, behind only Auston Matthews and David Pastrnak.

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