As the Maple Leafs prepared to wind down the final tenth (or so) of their season, players were thankful on a number of fronts: firstly, that they're still in control of where they'll eventually finish in the NHL standings; and secondly, that the organization has amassed enough depth to keep them competitive through their last eight regular-season games and in position to qualify for the playoffs.
"It's huge," defenceman Connor Carrick said Monday regarding Toronto's roster depth. "It's something every good organization takes pride in, and it's on the players too, to stay in it when their minutes are down, they're out of the lineup, they're in the minors, whatever. It's your job, culture-wise, to maintain an NHL product when it's time to get called upon."
The hearts of Leafs fans raced a little harder than normal after Saturday's 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres - not just because Toronto didn't get the win, but because goalie Frederik Andersen left the game after the first period due to an upper-body injury. The veteran did take to the ice for a short stretch at the Buds' practice facility Monday, but won't play when the Leafs square off against the Florida Panthers Tuesday at Air Canada Centre - and although both Andersen and the team are hopeful he'll be out of action for only a short period of time, everyone involved understands the final stretch of the regular season can't be only about the performance or playing status of just one player.
Whether it's Andersen or backup Curtis McElhinney in net, Toronto's players in front of their goalie will have to put forth a strong effort to beat the Panthers and the other seven opponents they'll face over the next two weeks. Indeed, all of the Buds' players recognized their showing against Buffalo simply wasn't good enough and can't be replicated.
"That was, start to finish, a pretty poor effort, I think," centre Brian Boyle said of Saturday's loss, which snapped a three-game win streak for the Leafs. "The third (period) might've been a little better, but it was still 5-2. You've got to throw all the excuses out, whether it's travel, or fatigue or any of that stuff. You've got to get mentally prepared. Toward the end of the season, nobody's feeling fully rested, fully healthy. We need to find ways every single night to get points."
"We've just got to get out there and play right," added head coach Mike Babcock. "We weren't very pleased with our effort there the other night, didn't do a very good job in the neutral zone, didn't break out well, weren't on the puck. So we've got to be a lot better and we understand that."
The Leafs will take on a Panthers team that's seven points behind Boston for the final wild card playoff berth and that is 4-6-0 in their past 10 games, but Florida is also a squad that handed Toronto a 7-2 defeat in their most recent meeting March 14, and they'll be looking to play spoiler in much the same way the Sabres did Saturday. However, the Leafs aren't going to focus too much on what the Panthers are doing right - at this point, it's about what Toronto has to improve on that matters most to them.
"The best way to look at it is to look inward toward your own team," Boyle said. "We're going to watch what their tendencies are, but you have to expect a motivated club when you go and play. It's the NHL. There's always reasons to be motivated. It's a privilege to play in the league, so guys for the most part can motivate themselves. You're not going to worry about the other team being ready to play or hopefully that they lie down for you. We never expect that. We expect everybody's best, and the best way to do what we want to do is focus on our own game."
McElhinney will get the start against the Panthers, while netminder Garret Sparks - who was recalled Monday from the American League's Marlies along with winger Kasperi Kapanen - will back him up. In addition, veteran blueliner Roman Polak will return to action after a two-game suspension, so Toronto's lineup will have a different look to it. But that's always the case in a game where injuries and unforeseen issues pop up from time-to-time. The important thing is the team still believes in itself after a strong stretch of play - they're 7-2-1 in their past 10 and are five points behind Ottawa for second in the Atlantic Division - and Leafs players are ready for the challenge Florida presents.
"You've got to have perspective," said Carrick, who will appear in just his fifth game since missing a month due to an injury in late February. "It's one thing to feel good about yourself, and it's another to respect every opportunity to get two points at this time of year. We had a little lapse against Buffalo, we've got a Florida team who's hunting, and it's a good opportunity for our group to bounce back and at the same time continue the trend that we've had the last little while here."