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The Maple Leafs are looking for a clean break.
As in a win on Saturday night against Chicago to enter the long NHL all-star hiatus with more solid playoff positioning, rather than stew about giving further hope to four fellow Eastern Conference teams sitting right behind them. It will also end a stretch of six home games since Jan. 4, of which the Leafs have won just two to date, though they did squeeze out a couple of overtime points.
The Leafs were no doubt hoping to kick back by this Sunday morning with at least 60 points in the bank, making the playoff math easy. Win 19 of their remaining 32 games for at least 98 points in total, considered a magic number.
But lose in regulation to Chicago and the Leafs are at 57, opening the door for the conference race to get even tighter via a group of teams with games remaining after the Leafs start their hiatus.
“That would be a longer (sour) taste,” agreed winger Zach Hyman as the Leafs worked out Friday at a west-end multi-pad while the Blackhawks set up next door. “In the regular season, you lose a game, you usually play right after. This is a little different.”
Much was made of getting some traction at Scotiabank Arena in January, after the Leafs settled in following five straight road victories over New Year’s. But a loss Saturday drops Sheldon Keefe’s team below .500 at home (currently 12-5-7). While they haven’t put in many clunkers on Bay St., nor do they need extra worries about a slump, once most of them scatter to sunny climes for a week, returning to practice Jan. 25 in Nashville before facing the Predators and Dallas Stars.
Defenceman Tyson Barrie said whatever happens, the Leafs need the time off, both their built-in bye week and the ensuing break for the all-star skills contest and the game itself in St. Louis next weekend.
“I’ve always been a fan of stepping away for a week, regroup and get ready for a big push,” said Barrie. “The league usually takes a step up after this break and then again for playoffs.”
The remaining 33 games are condensed into 69 days, with five road trips of at least two games’ duration, including the long distance California trek the first week in March.
“Every time you’re going into a break, you want to finish off on a high note,” said Keefe. “It gives everyone a little better feeling leaving the rink. We also just want to finish our week on a positive note. We’ve been able to get three of four points after a tough week previous. We want to be on the right side of it.”
When the break concludes, the Leafs should have a better idea about their long list of injuries. Jake Muzzin has been spotted around the press box with few signs of discomfort from a broken toe/foot suffered Dec. 27 in New Jersey. He’s expected to stay near Toronto and skate to accelerate recovery. But Morgan Rielly likely won’t be back from a similar injury until late March.
The Hawks have also had recent misfortune with injuries, but are hanging around for wild-card contention and began their road trip with wins in Montreal and Ottawa. Saturday sets up another showdown between leading scorers Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane, as well as the Nylander brothers, William of the Leafs and Alex of the Hawks. Former NHLer Michael Nylander was at practice Friday.
“Every time we play these guys, it makes for a pretty exciting game, high scoring,” forecasted Matthews. “(Kane) seems to get better and better every year despite (being aged 31). Year in, year out he’s up at the top of the leaderboard. A lot of the pre-scouting is centred around 88 (Kane).”
MOORE-D IN TORONTO
As the Maple Leafs kept one eye on the weather reports regarding storms across the northern part of the continent interfering with Sunday vacation flights, winger Trevor Moore found he’ll be staying around the Marlies a bit.
After he mentioned Friday after practice he’d like to go home to California to visit family, the Leafs announced he’s going on a conditioning stint. He badly needs some game-action after a shoulder injury followed by a concussion saw him play just once since Nov. 15. It’s possible Moore still gets the league’s mandated mini-break amid a four-game assignment as the Marlies play twice this weekend in Charlotte, then are off four days before heading to Cleveland for a game on Jan. 24.
Keefe only spared players such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner from Friday’s practice as they were in 25-minute territory the night before in the shootout loss to Calgary. It’s unlike the Leafs hold a full skate Saturday morning, so it’s hard to confirm if the changes made on right wing in the third period, which saw Hyman, Andreas Johnsson and Pierre Engvall all shifting around, will hold.
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