There promises to be an entertaining collision Saturday night in a game both desperately need to win to enhance their chances of qualifying for an NHL playoff berth. The Leafs had a share of the eighth and final qualifying spot in the East when they practised Friday.
“We’re playing better defensively and getting the goals against down, our power play has been all right and our penalty killing is doing better,” said captain Mats Sundin. “We’re plugging away.”
The Oilers were six points shy of the playoffs in the West when they took to the ice Friday after the Leafs.
“We’ve been in this situation before,” said captain Jason Smith. “We still believe we can get ourselves into a playoff spot.
“We’ve played better as of late and maybe not got the results we wanted but we’re going to go out and play well (Saturday) and get a win.”
Toronto missed the playoffs by three points last spring, while the Oilers got in by winning their last regular-season game – and then went all the way to the final.
“There’s still lots of hockey left,” said Oilers coach Craig MacTavish. “When you’re playing well, six points is not a big deficit to overcome, especially based on the fact we have five games left against Minnesota.
“I definitely believe we’re good enough to make the run and get into the playoffs. Everybody’s got to have that belief, and I’m sure (the Oilers players) do. There’s nobody here who doesn’t believe that. It’s warranted. Do we have to get better? Absolutely. Do we need to score more goals? Sure. But talking about being optimistic, we are.”
So are the Leafs.
If faith in one’s ability is a necessary attribute to achieve a goal, both these teams will make it to post-season play.
The Leafs should get an emotional boost from a pre-game ceremony honouring members of the 1966-67 Leafs team that was the last to win the Stanley Cup for Toronto.
“It’s going to be a great night,” said Sundin. “Hopefully it’s going to spark our team for the game.”
Coach Paul Maurice will give Andrew Raycroft a 20th consecutive goaltending start. Raycroft said he doesn’t feel in the least bit fatigued by the heavy workload.
“No, not at all,” he said. “The body feels good and ready to go.
“You get into a rhythm. You feel the game a little more when you’re playing lots. Right now I feel in a good rhythm, and the team is playing really well, which makes my life easier.”
Raycroft will get a game off eventually “but that’s not in the very near future,” he said. He’s not adverse to pinning his hopes on one guy. He did it with Arturs Irbe when he coached the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Goaltenders that have prepared themselves well over the course of the off-season can play a lot of games,” said Maurice. “I’m not afraid to use both of our goaltenders but at the same time the way he’s going he’ll keep playing.”
Dwayne Roloson will start at the other end.
“It’s going to be a wildly competitive game,” MacTavish predicted. “It should be from both teams’ perspectives.
“We need the points badly and Toronto is embroiled in its own race. It’s a real microcosm of today’s NHL where everybody’s got a chance. There are only so many opportunities and certainly for us those opportunities are starting to run out and we have to start to take advantage of them and (Saturday) is another opportunity for us. We know it’s a big game for the Leafs as well and it’s going to be a great game. We’re anticipating one.”
The Oilers’ Ales Hemsky, who had his bell rung Friday night, said he’ll be ready to play Saturday. With Jarret Stoll and Fernando Pissano both back home with concussions, the line of Hemsky, Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff is getting upwards of 25 minutes ice time a game.
“At the start of the year we filled the net,” said Smyth. “Now the critical time is here and we’ve got to answer the call.
“It’s important that everybody steps up to the plate.”
A 2-1 overtime loss in Buffalo on Thursday was a good building block, he said.
“The biggest thing, I thought, was that we were cycling the puck well and causing a lot of traffic and taking pucks to the net. If you continue those little things, they’ll make a difference.”
The Oilers will make it, he said.
“There’s no question that we have the depth to get back into the playoff race,” said Smyth.
The Leafs are coming off a 4-2 win in Philadelphia on Thursday.
“We know it’s going to be a big, intense game,” said Smyth, who leads the Oilers with 28 goals. “We’ve just got to play our style and not worry about them.”
While the share of eighth is gratifying, the Leafs aren’t feeling satisfied yet.
“Not quite,” said forward Bates Battaglia. “We’ve got a long way to go yet and a lot of work to do.
“It’s a little bit of confidence but you’re got to take it in stride. We can’t take anything for granted at this point.”
MacTavish was nine growing up in London, Ont., when the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967.
“I was a (Dave) Keon fan growing up,” said MacTavish. “I remember some of the pictures (of the players) at city hall that everybody has seen.”
Good for them to get the recognition all these years later, he said.
Ditto from Sundin.
“1967 was a long time ago,” said Sundin. “I wasn’t even born.
“It’s great to have this night for them. I’m glad it’s happening while I’m around. I haven’t seen all those guys together. The fans haven’t seen them all together.”
He’s talked briefly to Keon in the past.
“He has nothing but positive things to say,” said Sundin. “He gave me a lot of encouragement and told me to keep my head up and to work hard – just a few words of wisdom.”
Sundin’s hope is that a win rather than a pre-game ceremony will be the main thing Leafs fans will be talking about come Sunday.