Maple Leafs facing ‘different’ challenges than playoff-desperate opponents

Auston Matthews had a pair of goals and John Tavares dished three assists as the Toronto Maple Leafs handled the Florida Panthers 6-2.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Take it from a guy in the heat of a playoff chase; teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t have a lot in common with clubs currently scrapping it out for their post-season lives.

“They’re in a completely different world right now,” said Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice on Thursday morning, ahead of what turned out to be a 6-2 loss to the Leafs for his club. “They’re playing with their food. They got enough; they’re good. Two teams, I don’t know they approach the game any less hungry, but we certainly have a lot more at stake.”

That’s been true of Toronto’s past three opponents. Nearly a week ago, a not-dead-yet Ottawa Senators team brought the house in a game where the Leafs stumbled late, but scraped out a shootout victory. On Tuesday in New York, the Islanders — who, along with the Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins are trying to lock down one of the final two Eastern Conference wild-card berths — pulled away from the Buds in the third period, winning 7-2. Then on Thursday, Toronto turned in its best effort of the past week to beat Maurice’s squad.

Nobody on the Leafs will look you in the eye and say it’s easy for the club to match the emotion of the teams they’ve been facing, but veteran Mark Giordano noted the contests do serve as a nice preview of coming attractions.

“I think, individually, it’s up to you to get up for games and whatever motivates you, you get yourself in the right mindset,” Giordano said in Florida a couple hours before the victory. “As a team, these are great games to play in. You know the other team is obviously playing to try and get into a playoff spot. For us, it’s about feeling that intensity and knowing the feeling we’re going to get from these games is a playoff-like feel from the other side. So it’s good for us and we’ve just got to continue to get better and sharpen up and be ready for our playoffs.”

Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe acknowledged it can be a challenge to bring the same fire as the opposition to these games, but noted — even before the Leafs had a strong effort versus Florida — that his team has started its recent outings well. The trick is carrying it through for a full 60.

“That’s really what a lot of the NHL is about, is doing it for longer and harder than the opposition,” he said Thursday. “That’s a big thing, no doubt. We’re going to have to manufacture that [emotion] and create our own sense of urgency, which we’ve discussed.”

Of course, it’s not like the Leafs are playing for nothing. They’ve got the inside track on the Tampa Bay Lightning for home-ice advantage in a Round 1 matchup that’s felt locked in since Christmas, holding a five-point advantage on the Bolts with two games in hand. Additionally, Toronto is conditioning itself to implement a playoff-style of hockey. That’s why, after the win in Florida, everyone was pleased with how they closed out the third-period versus a hard-charging team.

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“That’s obviously what we want to do, that’s what we want to be about,” centre Auston Matthews said after the win. “We’ve been a team that’s been consistently good with that and I think, as of late, slipped a little bit. I think this is good for us as a whole just to kind of gain that confidence back and close out a game like we did tonight.”

Of course, having the cushion the Leafs do does allow them certainly luxuries. Part of the reason Keefe has sometimes gone with lineups of seven defencemen and 11 forwards — as was the case Thursday — is because it allows him to make sure all nine of Toronto’s NHL-calibre blue-liners get some reps.

Nobody wants a situation where a guy is scratched for a month straight, only to be thrown into the fire of a playoff series with rust on his blades. Keefe’s decision to rest Morgan Rielly and go with seven D against Florida opened the door for Luke Schenn to get back in the lineup, while also affording Erik Gustafsson the chance to get some more ice, including on the top power-play unit.

“I think that’s what you’re looking for, right?” Keefe said. “That’s part of where we’re at here with being healthy. You give Rielly the night off tonight, so you’re going to lean on Gus a little bit more, which is a good chance for him to get comfortable and show his skills. I thought he moved the puck really well, very clean on the power play and played more minutes at five-on-five [15:10] too.”

Of course, the Leafs are integrating new forwards, too, after picking up so many bodies ahead of the March 3 trade deadline. One of those guys is Sam Lafferty, who registered his first goal in his 10th game in Blue and White on Tuesday against the Islanders.

“Nice to get one, pretty lucky bounce,” Lafferty said of the shot that glanced off his body and into the net. “[It’s] always nice to produce a little bit. I’m just feeling more and more comfortable with the group and we just want to keep taking steps here.”

Keefe agreed it was good to see Lafferty be rewarded, especially on a play that started with him creating an offensive-zone turnover and then going to the net. That’s all very much in the job description for him and fellow newcomer Noel Acciari. As is the case on the back end, Keefe is moving pieces around a bit up front — especially in the absence of the injured Ryan O’Reilly — and the versatility both Lafferty and Acciari bring with the ability to play wing or centre is a nice
boon for the bottom two lines.

“[Acciari] and Lafferty [have both] certainly given us a lot more options, a lot more depth and a lot more consistency in terms of their effort and competitiveness in that area of the lineup,” the coach said.

Of course, Lafferty has an entire dressing room of new faces to connect with and one way he’s blending in with his new mates is by expanding his family. Earlier this month, Schenn and his wife welcomed a new baby; goalie Ilya Samsonov left this current road trip in New York and just announced he has a new son, and Lafferty expects to join the dad club right as the season winds down.

There are four days off between the regular season and playoffs in April and Lafferty is optimistic he and his wife, awaiting their first child, may have threaded the needle perfectly.

“It should be right after the regular season,” Lafferty said. “Hopefully right in between [the season and playoffs].”

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