March 22, 2017, 6:19 PM ET [36 Comments]
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The Toronto Maple Leafs opened up some distance in the race for an Eastern Conference wildcard spot and closed the gap on Boston in the Atlantic Division with a 4-2 win over the Bruins on Monday, but their prospects of making the post-season for the first time since 2013 are improving considerably because their competitors are failing miserably in crunch time.
On Tuesday, Boston, Tampa Bay, Florida and Philadelphia all lost in regulation.
The Bruins 3-2 loss to Ottawa was their third in a row under interim coach Bruce Cassidy (who went 12-3 after replacing Claude Julien) and kept Toronto just a single point out of third place with two games in hand.
The Lightning also dropped their third straight to Arizona (who played in Nashville the previous night) and remain four points in back of Toronto.
GM Steve Yzerman moving centers Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula prior to the deadline has severely hampered Tampa’s chances.
Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Victor Hedman have produced, but the loss of Tyler Johnson and Vladislav Namestnikov earlier this month has forced head coach John Cooper to use rookie Brayden Point and AHLer Yanni Gourde as their top two centers.
Roberto Luongo’s injury in early March and the Panthers struggling offense has buried their post-season aspirations. Former Leaf James Reimer has gone 2-8-0 in his last 10 starts, forcing Tom Rowe to go to third stringer Reto Berra on Tuesday.
The Flyers were one point behind Toronto going into their contest at Air Canada Centre on March 9. Since the 4-2 loss, they have gone 2-4-0 and are seven points in back of the Leafs.
The New York Islanders (closest to Toronto in the wildcard race with 78 points) have been idle since Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to Columbus and are 1-3-1 in their last five games. The Isles are even with the Leafs at 71 games and like Toronto plays three times in the next four nights, but face a much tougher slate of games at MSG against the Rangers, at Pittsburgh on Friday and at home against the Bruins on Saturday.
Toronto will have to go 6-5 in their remaining 11 games to reach 93 points, which is what Detroit needed to make the post-season last year.
With three back-to-backs remaining on the schedule, it will be interesting to see how Mike Babcock will use backup Curtis McElhinney.
Frederik Andersen will make his eighth consecutive start against the Blue Jackets and McElhinney is slated to be in goal against New Jersey on Thursday.
With Toronto having a slight cushion, it is likely that the Leafs head coach will continue to split starts on consecutive nights, but if the race tightens, will he go with Andersen on consecutive nights.
The Leafs will make one lineup change necessitated by injury. Eric Fehr will make his Leafs debut on the fourth line with Brian Boyle and Matt Martin. The veteran forward will take the place of Nikita Soshnikov, who took a hard hit in the boards from Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara in the third period on Monday.
Columbus will go with backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo, who made 31 saves in a 5-2 win over Toronto on February 15 and will sit winger Scott Hartnell.