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Maple Leafs experience what playoff hockey would be

Overtime loss to Blackhawks gives young team glimpse of postseason

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- This was the kind of game this Toronto Maple Leafs team needs, a tight, drawn-out, down-to-the-final-minutes-and-into-overtime game against a good opponent in the Chicago Blackhawks.

This was playoff hockey. This was what the race will be like, something that the young Maple Leafs have been learning through the past month and will continue to learn over the next three weeks.

With the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto's main competitors for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, losing on Saturday, the Maple Leafs scratched and clawed to get at least one point, a point that could come up big as the season winds down, at Air Canada Centre.

They got it. And though they couldn't get the second point -- Ryan Hartman scored with 17 seconds remaining in overtime for a 2-1 Blackhawks win -- it was something. 

On this night, which ended with the Maple Leafs one point ahead of the Islanders and two points ahead of the Lightning, it was enough. 

Asked if he was left thinking about the point they got or the point they missed out on, forward James van Riemsdyk didn't hesitate. 

Video: CHI@TOR: Matthews tips home Nylander's terrific feed

"You always take the points you can get and run with them, especially with the race that we're in," he said. "Obviously we know what's going on in the games around us. That was a huge point for us. We needed that one."

That is abundantly clear when looking at the Maple Leafs schedule. The Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets are up next. And they finish the season hosting the Washington Capitals, Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. 

They will need every single one of their points to continue playing beyond that final game against Columbus, which includes every single one of the 15 points they have earned with overtime losses this season, the most in the NHL. 

"At the end of the day we know where we're at in the standings and that we need points," van Riemsdyk said.

The Maple Leafs were successful in containing one of the better offenses in the League on Saturday, holding Patrick Kane without a point and Jonathan Toews to an assist. The goals came, instead, from John Hayden, who scored his first in the NHL, at 10:51 of the second period, and Hartman.

"It could have gone either way," said Auston Matthews, who had the goal for the Maple Leafs. "This is one of the best teams in the League, so I thought we did a pretty good job tonight, all of us holding each other accountable, making sure everybody played a full 60 minutes. I thought we actually played pretty solid."

And they got a taste of what the rest of the season will be like, what the playoffs could be like, what many of the players in the room have yet to experience. William Nylander, for one, corrected himself when he was about to talk about the postseason feel of the game. He instead referred to it as intense.

He doesn't know what the playoffs feel like because he's never played in them in the NHL. 

Van Riemsdyk, however, has 46 postseason games on his resume, though only seven have come in Toronto. But he knows what it's like. He knows that the game on Saturday was a taste, for those like Matthews and Nylander, who have yet to experience it.

"It felt like a playoff-type of game with just how tight it was out there," van Riemsdyk said. "There wasn't much room and there was a guy right in your face pretty much whenever you touched the puck. Those are the sort of games that you've got to get used to playing down the stretch. Those are the type of games that you play a lot in the playoffs."

There was little criticism of the team, with the players seemingly pleased with themselves after the effort. The lone dissenting voice was coach Mike Babcock, who did acknowledge that "as good as we played at times, I thought we were very respectful of them. I would like to see us go after them a little bit more, but that's all part of the process."

It's part of the process of learning. It's part of the process of understanding just how hard this is going to be. It's part of the process of figuring it out, where they need to go to get where they want to be. 

"We've been able to rise to the challenge in some of these marquee games like this," van Riemsdyk said. "It's a good sign. Obviously we've still got to make sure we're getting points and climbing the standings and holding onto our spot. We got one point. We'll take that and run with it."

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