The Toronto Maple Leafs are taking a healthy run at their first playoff appearance since 2013.
The Leafs (15-12-7) rolled into Tampa Bay on a three-game winning streak, after beating the Panthers, 3-2, in a shootout last night in Sunrise.
Toronto is now just three points back of Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division, and the Leafs have three games in hand on the Bruins.
“The young guys are getting better and better and becoming dominant players,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock told reporters yesterday. “We trust them more and have become a better hockey club.”
Indeed, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner, a.k.a. the “young guys,” were factors in beating the Panthers. Matthews scored his 17th of the season; Nylander potted his eighth, and Marner notched the shootout winner, after racking up nine shots in the actual game.
Tonight, the Leafs will take on a Lightning squad that is fully prepared for a tough test.
“They’re just a dangerous team,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper. “I think their win-loss record is not indicative of how they’ve played. They could have more points than they have right now.”
Yes, they could. Especially if they were better in the shootout, instead of 1-5. In terms of score-adjusted Corsi, the Leafs are in the upper half of the NHL. And that certainly wasn’t the case prior to the arrivals of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Babcock.
If they can beat the Lightning in regulation, the Leafs will move into fourth place in the Atlantic, putting even more pressure on the Bruins and Senators, not to mention the Bolts and Panthers, two teams that came into the season with high expectations.
Don’t forget, the way things have gone in the Metropolitan Division, there may only be three playoff spots for Atlantic teams to grab. Montreal has a nice cushion at the top (for now, at least), but it’s going to be a serious scramble below.