Just because they’ve clinched their spot against Boston in the playoffs doesn’t mean the Maple Leafs can stop working — or stop influencing the bigger Eastern Conference playoff picture.
A sluggish start in the second of a back-to-back games cost them Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena when the Carolina Hurricanes came out with desperation and exited 4-1 winners. That kept the Canes a point up on both Montreal, where the Leafs close out the schedule Saturday, and Columbus.
For the Leafs, still in need of a spring tune-up in their last home game Thursday against Tampa Bay as well as their visit to Montreal, being out-hustled by the Canes was disappointing, but not unexpected for coach Mike Babcock.
“(Monday’s clinching win in Long Island) was an emotional night for our team,” Babcock said. “The level of emotional engagement of the two teams at the start tonight were they were one point ahead of Montreal (which beat Tampa on Tuesday) and we had clinched.
“We weren’t very good in the first period (eventually trailing 2-0 in the second) and really battled back and made it a game. The first thing we’re going to do is take a day off.”
Backup goaltender Garret Sparks faced 30-plus shots in what could have been his final start of the season with Frederik Andersen taking it from here. Babcock agreed the giveaway stats showed the Leafs didn’t make it easy on Sparks, but the clutch save eluded him again.
A Travis Dermott clearing pass ended in Jordan Staal’s 3-1 dagger halfway through the third, while Justin Williams pin-balled a puck behind the Leafs net off Martin Marincin and between Sparks and his post.
“It came exactly where I didn’t need it to go,” Sparks lamented. “We had life at points and we’re definitely in the game.
“This year isn’t over for me. I’ll be ready if anything happens.”
In the third period, Babcock moved Mitch Marner to Auston Matthews’ wing and put Kasperi Kapanen with John Tavares as his team struggled to get to 20 shots.
“We weren’t going,” shrugged Babcock. “No question we got a really good push (from those changes).”
Winger Andreas Johnsson and defenceman Jake Muzzin were sick and out of action. The result was Marincin coming back in on defence and being paired with Calle Rosen, the latter’s second straight start after being recalled from the farm team.
With the Leafs trailing badly on the shot clock early in the second after Dougie Hamilton’s power-play goal, fans were on them for just getting three to the net (minus a William Nylander goal called back on an offside challenge). Relief finally came on Tavares’ power-play goal, his 47th strike of the season.
“We have to be at a better level to start,” Tavares said. “We just weren’t quick enough on some of the 50-50 pucks and weren’t able to execute good puck support and getting it up ice. Once we did that, things started to turn. We have to keep finding ways to get better.”
Before the game Babcock confirmed Andersen will play versus Tampa and in Montreal.
“We just want him to have a rhythm going in. You’re going to see that with a lot of the guys, too. They want to play.”
The coach insisted his lineup on Saturday would not be filled out with an eye to implications for the Canadiens, Canes and Jackets if the Eastern race comes down to the final night.
“We’re going to worry about ourselves totally.”
Jake Gardiner, sidelined with back problems for much of the second half of the season, is expected to play one or both of the final two games.
BACK TO THE DANCE
With the Leafs clinching on Monday, Babcock will be making his 14th appearance in the playoffs in 16 years as an NHL coach. He’s the first Leaf coach since Pat Quinn in the early 2000s to get there three consecutive times, but is trying to avoid becoming the first since King Clancy in the mid-’50s to lose three opening series in a row.
On a related note, Babcock’s successor in Detroit, Jeff Blashill, has been officially extended another two years by the Red Wings. Many see that as proof Ken Holland intends to stay as general manager and not make way for Steve Yzerman, who stepped back as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning last year.
LIGHTNING ROD FOR STORM SURGE
While many people, Don Cherry comes to mind, objected to the Canes’ celebratory Storm Surge skits after a win, Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour will miss them.
“Loved it,” Brind’Amour told reporters Tuesday morning. “You have to understand the whole premise behind all that was to thank our fans. Thank them for sticking with this group.
“We’re in the entertainment business. You don’t have to sell tickets here, but we have to sell tickets in Raleigh. You’ve got to do a little extra. That’s all that was.”
Brind’Amour’s favourite celebration?
“(Evander) Holyfield. I don’t care if you don’t like it. We loved that.”
WILD NIGHT IN BEANTOWN
Hard to believe 50 years had passed this week since Quinn put his shoulder into Bobby Orr and nearly caused a riot throughout New England.
In daring to hit its favourite son of the time, Quinn might as well have knocked Paul Revere off his horse in the midst of his Midnight Ride.
“You knew all about Orr and what he was capable of,” the late Quinn told the Toronto Sun in 1999. “The only place to stop him was the offensive blue line.”
Quinn spotted the Bruins superstar defenceman gathering speed from the Boston end. It was 18:03 of the second period, the Bruins up six goals already in what was to be a 10-0 win and four-game sweep.
“I saw he had his head down and took a run at him. You expect an athlete of that calibre to be able to get out of the way. Maybe he didn’t see me, maybe it was because he had no room. I got him with my shoulder and followed through.”
Orr was out cold and later diagnosed with a concussion. Fans at the old Boston Garden wanted to do far worse to Quinn if they could get their claws on him.
As he went to the cramped penalty box to serve his major, Quinn fended off a mob with his stick, then ended up tussling with a policeman who was trying to keep the crowd away. Quinn’s stick shattered the glass in the box.”
Quinn eventually was escorted to the Leafs room, but bravely came back to finish the game in a shower of beer and garbage.
“Something hard hit me and I looked down to see one of those metal change holders that bus drivers carried,” Quinn chuckled.
Orr said the hit and his trip to the hospital were a blur.
“The part I didn’t like about it was I took a lot of guff for being hit,” Orr told the Sun’s Tim Wharnsby. “Every time I went back to Maple Leaf Gardens, I was booed. That part bothered me.”
But the two eventually became friends and even served on the Hockey Hall Of Fame’s selection committee.
“We’ve buried the hatchet many times,” Quinn once told a Vancouver TV station. “We weren’t (friends) for awhile, we had a series of skirmishes after that, but he in my mind was the best (player) ever.”
There was a press box seat for the first high-ranking Bruin exec to appear since the trade deadline, player personnel boss and ex-Leaf GM John Ferguson Jr … Also in the house, former Leaf defenceman Jyrki Lumme, visiting with a Finnish delegation … While the Leafs lament goalies they traded such as Tuukka Rask and one chosen with their first round pick (Roberto Luongo), it should be noted Andersen was originally a Hurricanes pick in the seventh round in 2010. He went back in the draft two years later where Anaheim selected him 87th overall … The Marlies have six games remaining, including a 3-in-3 weekend that starts at home against Hershey on Thursday, an 11 a.m. school day home game … The rolling milestones Tuesday night included Dermott’s 100th game, Marincin’s 200th, while Ron Hainsey and Connor Brown were a point away from 300 and 100 NHL points, respectively.
FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
Rest is best
It has become increasingly clear the Leafs will have to use every minute of that projected four-day hiatus between Saturday and Game 1 in Boston to recharge batteries. This latest back-to-back took a lot out of the Leafs and is part of five games in eight nights. A few, notably Ron Hainsey, have not taken a game off yet, but also don’t want to take time away now.
Johnny on the spot
John Tavares is looking playoff ready, getting goals in consecutive games, but more importantly, mixing it up in the dirty areas where the Leafs will have to beat the Bruins. He might yet hit the 50 mark.
That might have been the last time Garret Sparks is seen in the Leafs net this season. He made more than 30 saves, but leaves a lot of lingering doubt as to whether the club can withstand an injury to Frederik Andersen. But Sparks also deserves better from his high-risk defence. Six of 12 team giveaways were charged to the blueliners.
Matthews deserved more
A stronger intensity seems to have gripped Auston Matthews the past few games and while shut out in this match, he was a force with the puck and won 16 faceoffs, compared to 25 combined by Carolina.
Rosen doubles up
New rearguard Calle Rosen didn’t look out of place in back-to-back starts and put some quality pucks on the Carolina net that weren’t converted to goals or chances.