OTTAWA – The Toronto Maple Leafs’ focus is on Saturday night’s game against the Ottawa Senators as it could determine whether or not they still have a shot, albeit a long one, at the playoffs.
However, that didn’t prevent them from taking time Friday to reflect on the shot that Boston’s Brad Marchand took at the Leafs’ fortunes Thursday night.
The Bruins forward aimed a swipe at Toronto’s bench during a stoppage in play in the second period of their game, making a golfing gesture to mock the predicament facing a Leafs team that’s barely alive for a post-season berth.
Toronto got the last laugh when it came back to beat the Bruins 4-3 in shootout to stay in the hunt in the Eastern Conference heading into Saturday night’s visit to Ottawa.
“We were just talking about it in the (dressing) room,” Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said Friday after skating at the Senators’ practice facility. “It’s pretty unclassy and it’s nice that we came back to win the game.”
Schenn said the gesture from Marchand, who later told reporters that he received “an earful” from Bruins coach Claude Julien over his actions and said it wouldn’t happen again, just served to motivate a team that’s been written off many times this season already, but enter the final week of the NHL schedule with a shot at returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
“Definitely, when you’re still not down and out of it, it’s going to fire you up a lot,” Schenn said.
“He’s a rookie, right?” added Toronto winger Joffrey Lupul. “Hopefully the guys on his team deal with that, because I know when I was a rookie that the guy’s on my team would deal with that.”
The 10th-place Leafs do have their work cut out from if they want to prove Marchand wrong, though, and grab the eighth and final playoff berth, thereby avoiding an early spring and the opportunity to hit the links.
With 82 points and just four games remaining, they pretty much need to win out and hope to get some help from above.
The Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers are in seventh and eighth place, respectively, both at 87 points and the Sabres have five games left.
The Carolina Hurricanes sit ninth with 84 points and five games to go.
The Leafs also don’t play any of those teams over their remaining schedule.
Toronto has won two in a row and five of its past six games. The Rangers have dropped two straight. The sixth-place Montreal Canadiens, at 89 points, have also hit a rough patch lately.
“We think we can run the next four games, that’s what our plan is,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said Friday. “Obviously, we have to hope that somebody loses complete grip of the pole and it looks like a couple (of teams) are thinking about that.
“We’d rather be higher up in the standings, but, when you’re pushing like this with positive energy, it’s a lot easier to get up for games than to go in with the feeling of dread that you’re letting a playoff spot go.”
The Senators, meanwhile, are 14th overall in the Eastern Conference with 70 points and have been realistically out of the playoffs for a couple of months.
Still, they’d never overlook the opportunity to play spoiler against their biggest traditional rival and this game will likely help restore some ferocity between the two clubs.
“We’re not tip-toeing through any of these games, we’ve been on the attack for the last couple of months,” Wilson said. “I think our focus is where it should be, we’re worrying about ourselves, but Ottawa’s certainly been playing well with all of their young guys just as we have, so it’ll be a tough game.”
Senators defenceman Chris Phillips only laughed when reporters tried to get him to admit that helping to knock the Leafs out would provide a little something special.
“That’s been our role for a little while now, being that far back, to play the spoiler,” he said following an off-ice workout. Ottawa returned home early in the morning from a 4-1 win over the Florida Panthers.
“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, whether they’re in a fight for home ice or making the playoffs, and we’ve used that for motivation for a while now and it’s no different tomorrow night,” Phillips said.
It will be a special occasion for one member of the Senators.
Stephane Da Costa, 21, is expected to make his NHL debut after the free-agent centre signed a two-year deal with Ottawa following his sophomore season at Merrimack College.
He skated on his own Friday with Senators assistant coach LukeRichardson. The five-foot-11, 180-pound native of Paris, by way of the United States, looks smaller than his listed size and will likely need to add some muscle, so Saturday will be a trial by fire.
Asked Friday if he felt he was ready for the NHL, he said: “We’ll find out tomorrow.”
To make room, the Senators, who will be without defenceman Erik Karlsson because of a leg laceration, demoted Colin Greening to Binghamton of the AHL after he had two goals against the Panthers.
The Leafs have won seven of their past eight games against Northeast Division rivals and their last loss in those games came on Feb. 19 when Craig Anderson made his Senators debut by making 47 stops in a 1-0 shootout victory at Air Canada Centre.
As good as Anderson has been since arriving in Ottawa, so has his counterpart in goal Saturday, Toronto’s James Reimer.
Reimer was named NHL rookie of the month for March on Friday after going 9-4-1 with a 2.87 goals-against average and .913 save percentage to keep the Leafs in contention for the post-season.
“I don’t know how much credit I can take for it, though,” the 23-year-old said. “I think whenever a goalie gets an accolade or something like that, it’s always indicative of how the team’s playing.”
His first NHL start came against the Senators at Scotiabank Place on New Year’s Day, a game Toronto won 5-1 with Reimer making 32 stops.
“I thought I was going to get a couple of games and now looking back, it’s been 30-plus. It’s been a crazy, wild ride, but it’s been a lot of fun,” he said.
With another win Saturday, the Leafs can keep the fun going and put off the golf course for at least another game.
“(The Senators) are playing some better hockey now. Some young guys called up are probably bringing a lot of energy, so it’s not a game we’re going to overlook and we’re not in a position to overlook anything,” Lupul said. “We’ve got to treat it just like we did the Boston game and go out and get two points.”