March 28, 2017, 6:04 PM ET [51 Comments]
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The Toronto Maple Leafs face a difficult test in the final 12 days of the 2016-17 regular season, beginning with their contest against the Florida Panthers at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday.
The Leafs are currently third in the Atlantic Division (85 points) with eight games left that will determine whether they will make the playoffs for the first time in an 82-game schedule since 2004, but have just a one point lead on Boston, with Tampa Bay and New York close behind in the race for the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots.
The Lightning rallied from a 4-1 second period deficit on Monday to beat Chicago 5-4 and move to within two points of the Leafs, while the Islanders lost their fifth in a row on home ice to Nashville and remain three points in back of Toronto.
The challenge in front of Mike Babcock’s young squad has been exacerbated by the uncertain status of goalie Frederik Andersen, who was injured on Saturday and will miss his first non back-to-back start of the season against Florida.
Andersen once again worked with Leafs goalie coach Steve Briere and participated in team drills on Tuesday, but Curtis McElhinney will get the start for Toronto, Garret Sparks (on emergency recall) will backup and it is unknown how long the Leafs starter will be out.
“I felt pretty good, it’s tough to compare like that (his feelings after yesterday’s practice), but it’s looking pretty positive.” Andersen said after the morning skate. “Anytime you come back from injury, you just want to make sure you feel as close to where you want to be. At this time of year, you want to waste too much time getting there, so you want to work hard and get back as quick as possible.”
Following Florida, Toronto hits the road for the final time with games in Nashville, Detroit and Buffalo, before ending with a four-game home stand against Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Columbus.
Andersen is hopeful to be back as soon as Thursday against the Predators, but medical clearance could push his return to Saturday at Joe Louis Arena or into the final week.
With two back-to-backs remaining, McElhinney is likely to make at least three of the remaining eight starts even if Andersen is ready on Thursday and may have to start more if he is out longer.
Defenseman Roman Polak will make his return to the lineup after serving his two-game suspension and rookie Kasperi Kapanen will make his first NHL start this season on the fourth line with veterans Matt Martin and Brian Boyle.
The Panthers lost 4-2 in Buffalo on Monday, as former Leaf James Reimer allowed four goals on 22 shots before being pulled in favor of backup Reto Berra. Reimer has gone 4-7-1 in March but is expected to get the start.
Defenseman Morgan Rielly was named the Maple Leafs nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which recognizes perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
The Leafs 2012 top pick has been challenged and given a most difficult assignment in his fourth NHL season, as head coach Mike Babcock is utilizing him mostly in a shutdown role against the opposition’s top line.
“(It’s the) first time I ever had a 23-year-old nominated for that award.” Babcock said “I think he’s one of the best young players in the world. Obviously Canada did last year in the World (Championships) and played for (Team North America at the World Cup ) on the #1 pair.”