TORONTO – Who would have thunk it?
With 59 games under their belt, the Maple Leafs are sitting in a playoff spot.
They got a little help in that respect on Wednesday night when Atlantic Division rivals Boston and Florida both lost, leaving Toronto a point ahead of each team and in third place in the division.
It’s not going out on a limb to say that most people thought this team, chalk full of young talent, would take more than a season to get to where they are, yet here they are fighting for a playoff spot.
And if you think head coach Mike Babcock isn’t paying close attention to what the teams around them are doing, guess again. He checked in on the Panthers-Oilers game last night.
“I watched the Florida-Edmonton game on and off just because it was entertaining,” Babcock said after the Leafs morning skate in preparation for a Thursday night home game against the New York Rangers.
“Then I checked the score this morning and the other games, like I do every day. Obviously, the more help you can get, great, but to me it’s about us. It has nothing to do with the opposition. Here’s the opportunity we have. At game 60 we wanted to have a chance (to make the playoffs), we have a chance. So it’s up to us, nobody else.”
The Leafs got some help last night, now it’s up to them to help themselves when they face their Original Six rival for the 608th time in franchise history and the third time this season.
Toronto will, once again, be without nifty rookie Mitch Marner, who is set to miss his fourth consecutive game due to a suspected shoulder injury. The Leafs put him on retroactive IR on Tuesday morning with the hopes he would return to the lineup either tonight, which won’t happen, or Saturday at home against the Canadiens. But Babcock didn’t sound so sure of that either.
“Mitch and I had that little discussion today and wondered how the science project was going and we went back into that room (to talk to the team doctors) and asked a few questions but didn’t get any good answers, so I don’t know,” Babcock said.
While Marner is out, defenceman Alexey Marchenko will be getting his first taste of action since being claimed off waivers from the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 4.
“He’s a real good defender, with a really smart, good stick. He’s a good, good passer, a courageous guy,” Babcock said of the Moscow native. “I think Marchy is a real hockey player. We’re going to find out.”
Marchenko will start the game playing alongside Jake Gardiner, who is currently the plus-minus leader on the team at plus-20.
“You’re excited every time you hit the ice and now it’s the first game for the Leafs, so I can’t wait to get out there,” Marchenko said.
In the Rangers, the Leafs are facing a team that has won seven of their last nine games and beat Toronto 5-2 in the last meeting on Jan. 19 at the Air Canada Centre.
“They don’t really have a weakness in their lineup,” veteran Tyler Bozak said. “They’re good from the goalie all the way up. We’ve got to be ready for their speed up front. We have to limit our turnovers. They’re pretty good at the transition game, and they’re really good at making that first pass, so we have to get into their zone and try to play a cycle game.”
Frederik Andersen will start again for the Leafs, and a solid performance from the big Dane is essential as Toronto faces one of the best goalies in the world in Swede Henrik Lundqvist.
“We need him to be good, we need him to be the top goalie in the league like he’s capable of being,” Babcock said of Andersen. “He’s got the skill set for that. That’s what we need and that’s what we expect.”