March 20, 2017, 4:38 PM ET [246 Comments]
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The Toronto Maple Leafs defensive merry-go-round will spin once again on Monday, as defenseman Connor Carrick participated in the morning skate and returns to the lineup for a key Atlantic Division matchup against the Boston Bruins at Air Canada Centre.
The Bruins have been red-hot since replacing Claude Julien in early February, going 12-4-0 under interim coach Bruce Cassidy (including a 2-1 record on a road swing through Western Canada) and are three points ahead of the Leafs for third place in the Atlantic.
Boston is led by Brad Marchand(37G, 42A), who trails Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid by one point for the NHL points lead and forward David Pastrnak, who has 31 goals. The Bruins are expected to be at full strength on Monday after center Patrice Bergeron was given a maintenance day on Sunday and will have Tuukka Rask in goal, but they have had difficulty against the young and speedy Leafs this season, going 0-3 and allowing 14 goals against.
Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk missed the morning skate on Monday, but head coach Mike Babcock indicated that both veterans will be in the lineup, as will goaltender Frederik Andersen, who makes his seventh straight start.
Carrick has been out with a shoulder injury since being hit by Winnipeg’s Mathieu Perreault on February 21, with Martin Marincin and Alexey Marchenko filling in. The 23-year-old has spent most of the season on the right side with Jake Gardiner, but on Monday he skated alongside Morgan Rielly.
Of the six primary starters on defense, Carrick has average the lowest time-on-ice (16:30). Rielly, Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev all average over 20 minutes and the bottom pairing unit of Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak almost 18 minutes per game.
As the games have become more meaningful down in the last two weeks, Babcock has begun to shorten his bench and distribute more minutes to five blueliners.
In six games this month, Toronto has used either Marchenko or Marincin) for 15 minutes or less, as both play minimally on special teams and do not have the level of trust from Babcock that the others do. This has resulted in more ice time against top lines for Gardiner, who in spite of a club-leading +24 has begun to display more defensive shortcomings.
Carrick could have a slightly bigger role in his return, but it is very possible that Babcock heavily relying on five defensemen could be the new normal for Toronto until the end of the season.
Montreal - 90(72 GP)
Ottawa - 86(71 GP)
Boston - 82(71 GP)
Toronto - 79(70 GP)
Eastern Conference Wildcard race
NY Rangers - 93(72 GP)
Toronto - 79(70 GP)
NY Islanders - 78(71 GP)
Tampa Bay - 77(71 GP)
Philadelphia - 74(71 GP)
Carolina - 73(70 GP)
Florida - 73(71 GP)