Before their first-round playoff series begins next week, the Maple Leafs still have one final regular season game to play - a road game in Montreal against a Canadiens team that's desperate to claim the final wildcard postseason berth. And though that means Toronto will have its hands full, the improvements in the defensive side of their collective game has Leafs players feeling confident regardless of whether their opponent is fighting for a playoff life.
"I think we've been doing a lot of things right," Leafs winger Trevor Moore said Friday after Leafs practice. "Everybody is focused on playing well at both ends of the ice, and I think we're keeping the other side from getting a lot of offensive chances, so we're feeling like we're on the right track here."
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock expects his team to be prepared Saturday at Bell Centre in Montreal. And if Toronto wants to draw the competitive dagger on its Atlantic Division (and Original Six) rivals, beating the Canadiens in their own building - and in the process, ending the Habs' playoff hopes - would be an ideal way for the Leafs to stick the dagger in.
"It's always fun to play in Montreal," William Nylander said Friday. "We know they're going to be ready, so we have to be ready, too."
The Leafs are looking to finish the season strong ahead of a first round series against the Boston Bruins - a matchup that's happened in the opening round for the second straight season - but they're not going to allow the narratives of past history to affect what they're capable of doing with this new, different group of talent. Babcock has a deep pool of players from which to choose: his lineup against Montreal won't include defenceman Jake Muzzin and centre Nazem Kadri, and yet the Buds can offer opportunities to D-men such as Calle Rosen and forwards such as Moore - and Toronto's lineup Saturday against the Habs will look significantly different than the one Babcock ices against the Bruins, let alone the lineup he iced against Boston in the spring of 2018.
You need depth to win in the post-season. You need your best players to be your best players in the playoffs. And you need to be able to focus on nothing but the game ahead of you, rather than looking too far ahead and getting distracted at your most pressing tasks.
The Leafs have those capabilities, and Saturday in Montreal, they intend to show they can take care of the task at hand, while getting all their ducks in order at exactly the most crucial point of the season.
"We've been better overall recently, but we can be even better," Nylander said. "It shouldn't matter who we're playing - we have to be at our best. That's the only way you can win in the NHL. Teams you play against are always good, and you need to be sharp to win a game at any point in the year."