With All-Star weekend complete, the start of the stretch drive now begins. The trade deadline is under a month away. From there, it’s a race to the playoffs.

For the Leafs, there are only 31 games left in the season. Of those games, 13 will be on the road and 18 are at home. In fact, never again this season will they play more than two in a row on the road. Conversely, they have a five-game home stand and two separate three game home stands remaining. There are four back-to-backs left in the season, two of which take place on the road (the other two have one road game in each).

Not only is the schedule favourable, they are also up 15 points on Montreal and Detroit, who are both tied for fourth in the division. Now, Detroit does have three games in hand on Toronto and Montreal has two, but both teams are preparing to sell at the deadline and are not serious threats.

Sports Club Stats puts the Leafs odds at making the playoffs at 98.9% right now.

Looking up the standings, the Bruins are five points up on the Leafs with three games in hand on them, too. The Leafs only have two games left against the Bruins – including one coming up this Saturday – but the Bruins also have a heavy road schedule the rest of the way; it’s not unfathomable that they could go on a slide. Either way, Toronto will have to take care of business in those games against Boston to close the gap based on the cushion the Bruins have built so far.

At best, the Leafs are playing for home ice advantage at this point, given Tampa Bay is 10 points up on them with two games in hand.

The Leafs are in a pretty strange spot where they pretty much know who they are going to play with around 30 games remaining in the schedule. Toronto can thank the divisional format in part for that; if it was a Conference top-eight scenario, they would be in a dog fight down the stretch with teams like the Rangers, Islanders, Hurricanes, Penguins and Blue Jackets. But that’s not Toronto’s problem.

Conveniently, both games against Boston happen before the trade deadline. If the Leafs really wanted to, they can specifically use those two contests as a barometer to see where they need to improve for their impending playoff matchup. They most likely won’t play it like that entirely — they are still looking long-term — but those games should give a good indication of what to expect come the playoffs.

It has not always been smooth sailing coming off such an exciting season last year, but the team is poised to make the playoffs already when it took them until the second last game of last season to clinch. The fact that they are in a bad division gets some of the credit for that, but looking at teams like Edmonton and Ottawa — who had success last year and are struggling mightily now — there’s something to be said for what they are accomplishing here.

Now to somehow ban Leafs vs. Bruins Game 7 highlights.


Notes

– Here are Jake Gardiner’s stats in the first half compared to the second half of every season:

SeasonGamesPointsShotsTime on Ice
2011 - 20121 - 38103520:37
39 - 75204422:34
2013 - 20141 - 40126021:34
41 - 80197620:34
2014 - 20151 - 3995019:55
40 - 79155021:59
2015 - 20161 - 39144819:55
40 - 79177421:18
2016- 20171 - 41226620:29
42 - 82216122:34

*2012-13 season not included because he only played 12 games. He was lights out in the playoffs, though.

I mentioned this on the FAN590 over the weekend, but Gardiner is pretty well always more productive in the second half of the season. It’s like clockwork. Last season, it was the first time he was slightly less productive, but we’re talking a total difference of one point and five shots on net, and he still played more.

In Gardiner’s last five games alone, he has nine points. Suddenly, he’s on pace for 47 points, which would be back-to-back career seasons for him points-wise.

– That said, the goal against Dallas can’t happen – clean faceoff win and he loses it within two seconds, leading to an easy goal. Part of that is the Leafs’ set defensive zone play where they win it and blow the zone. The Stars looked ready for it. Instead of playing the high flip, they just attacked the defender.

– The 12:27 Leo Komarov played against Chicago represented a season-low. He has played a handful of games in the 13 minute area, but it had never dipped below 13. Against Dallas, he was back over 15 minutes as Babcock shifted him around more between other lines. I think that’s what we’ll see more of moving forward.

– On the left, Komarov’s breakouts were a lot cleaner. Against Chicago, there was a play in the first where he was getting pressure from a forward and a defenseman as the puck came up the wall and he calmly picked it up clean and bumped it to Moore for a nice exit. On the right, you see players turn their back to the defenseman and end up coming down the zone with the puck because it’s the only way to get the puck off the wall on your forehand. Zach Hyman does this as well. Both players are much stronger in their own zone when they are on their strong side (as most players are).

– I was going to write about how discombobulated the power play has looked, and it still did against Chicago and Dallas, but maybe the two goals will get them going. Prior to the Kadri goal against Chicago, which was off a nice feed from Bozak, they were struggling to set up and had created nothing over a minute in before striking quickly. The one against Dallas was a lucky bounce. Sometimes that helps to get the ball rolling. The Leafs need to start figuring out the PP.

– I mentioned this a few times when William Nylander and Nazem Kadri were paired together — they don’t play at the same pace. Conversely, I think Mitch Marner is fitting in there with Nazem Kadri because they actually do. Marner and Kadri both like to slow the game down (compared to Nylander and Matthews, who play full speed ahead) and look to cycle off the wall and make plays. They are both creative players that will go to the dirty areas. When you add in Marleau’s speed, veteran savy and finishing ability, it makes for a nice line. Against Chicago, they were the best line on the team, often creating cycling opportunities.

– Speaking of the Chicago game – Probably a good idea to start Auston Matthews and William Nylander in overtime?

– I’ve been noticing Connor Brown is a bit of a do-everything player alongside Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. He basically does all the work for that line, but it’s working. He’s often first in on the forecheck and first in on the backcheck, and when puck possession is gained offensively, he’s usually in the high slot. JVR has a 54.93CF% with Brown / 54.55% without, while Bozak is at 52CF% with / 52.78CF% without. Basically, they aren’t missing a beat subbing Brown in there (at least in terms of controlling play), while the Kadri line is improving with Marner there. It’s a nice overall net win there.

– Both are small samples, but Matt Martin and Frederik Gauthier have posted a 43 CF% together this season while the swapped-in Moore and Kapanen have a 50.65 CF% together. That’s another nice upgrade. There were a few plays where Moore put some bank passes off the wall for Kapanen to go get that led to shot on goals after the rush. Against Dallas, there was one play where he put it behind Kapanen on purpose and it bounced off the boards, which put it in a spot where he could get to the puck before the defenseman. It turned into a pretty good shot-on-net play. Moore is still a crafty veteran with the puck; pairing him with speed (Moore is also one of the Leafs’ faster players still) is a nice combination.


Quotes

“That’s the hard part of coaching. I don’t want to say you have to break them, but you have to win that battle. It’s a hard battle. You have to win it, though. If your team is going to be a solid team at the end of the year, if they’re going to win those close games, they have to have that element in their DNA. That’s something where, I don’t want to say the coach wears you out, but the coach has to win that part for your team. That means you got to be able to coach when it’s pretty uncomfortable (with) some of the conversations you want to have with the players, because if you lose that you’re kind of hoping or begging them to play that way and it doesn’t work. And then at the end of the day it usually falls apart. I think both of us (he and Babcock), have a certain level of stubbornness in us and we do it out of respect for the team and if you’re going to coach at an elite level you have to have that quality or you’re not going to be successful.”

– Ken Hitchcock on how he and Babcock get players to buy in

I do think the Leafs will ultimately need to play their young players more for better results, but I also wonder if Babcock is hesitant to give them everything right away because he wants them to play his way and earn it unequivocally. It will be really interesting to see how ice time shakes down after the trade deadline and into the playoffs.

“Obviously, they played good. I saw that, too. We’ll just kind of do what we did here a bit tonight. Got Leo a few times in the d-zone, put Leo with Bozak a few times, and just used people. The good thing about it is we’ve got a break and we’ve got lots of time to think about that.”

– Babcock on keeping the lines together

I sort of think Babcock had to know this lineup would be better (which it was), but he had to sell it to veterans that it was just a quick look – especially when it comes to scratching Martin. I know people will be quick to say he shouldn’t have to, but there’s a human element here. Anyway, it would be hard to put the lines back to the way they were right now.

This technically isn’t a quote, but I’d fail this column if I didn’t include it. Toronto is a “cool” place to play again.


Video Tidbit of the Week

 

On one hand, at least the Leafs backchecked this time while shorthanded. On the other, it’s another great scoring chance off the rush.

It was a 3v2, but Bozak did actually get back to somewhat negate the complete odd-man rush. The bottom line is the Leafs need to be more careful here. Whoever is on the half-wall has to read what’s happening and adjust accordingly.

A lot of teams tend to play their top players shorthanded, particularly the Bruins, who they will most likely face in the first round of the playoffs.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.  I think it’s pretty obvious the lines should stay together at this point. There’s not much else to say here.

2.  Realizing that the Leafs will not be sitting Roman Polak, I think it will be interesting to see who they actually scratch. I’d suggest that Andreas Borgman has not been as good as Connor Carrick, but if Nikita Zaitsev returns first and you already have Polak and Ron Hainsey on the right, would they really shift Hainsey over? Probably not. It’s a tough numbers game. With Zaitsev back, I’d be curious to see them sit Polak and see how it goes, but otherwise, it just seems like Carrick is in a bit of a no-win situation.

3.  I do think I like the way Babcock moved Leo Komarov around, inserting him with Kadri for defensive zone faceoffs and moving him up on the odd line a few other times as well. He is still one of their better forwards in the defensive zone and it is smart to move him around and save players like Marner for more offensive opportunities.

4.  I think, similarly, the Leafs should consider using Kasperi Kapanen the way they move Komarov around, except for offense. That means the odd shift up with Matthews to provide a jolt, or swapping in for Brown on the Bozak-JVR line. His speed backs off defenders and changes the dynamic of any line he joins. It’s a different look that can provide a spark and change a game.

5.  I think Curtis McElhinney continues to be solid and should be seeing a little more action down the stretch. The one and only reason to do this is to preserve Andersen. The playoffs are a grind in which you play every other night. A playoff spot is not in jeopardy. At best, they are playing for home ice advantage in the first round. I’d rather have a rested goalie for the first round.


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