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Maple Leafs showing they're for real

Toronto inches closer to postseason berth in playoff-type atmosphere

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- There is no longer any doubt about the narrative that Nazem Kadri and the Toronto Maple Leafs have been pushing for much of the season: They are for real. They can make some noise. They can get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That looked even more likely on Monday, after the Maple Leafs completed a season sweep of the Boston Bruins of at least four games for the first time since 1924-1925 with a 4-2 win at Air Canada Centre, putting them one point back of the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division with one game in hand. It gave them a bit of breathing room too on their closest competition for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, with a three-point advantage on the New York Islanders and four points on the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"I've said that from the start: We're going to surprise some teams," Kadri said.

In the end, it was their power play that won it, the second-best in the League with the man-advantage against the second-best on the penalty kill. And though the Bruins clearly were not pleased with the call that resulted in that tie-breaking power play goal by Tyler Bozak at 18:03 of the third period - Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy called it "egregious" - the Maple Leafs were only concerned with the final outcome.

"They're a team that we're trying to catch and they're trying to pull away from us," Bozak said. "Those games are going to be tight. There's not a lot of room. They're going to be close games, so it's nice that we're finding ways to win. That was a big win for us tonight."

They had kept it tight enough that that power-play goal could make the difference, yielding empty-net goals at 18:47 by William Nylander and 19:09 by Kadri, before Dominic Moore got one back with 10 seconds remaining. The Maple Leafs had withstood the Bruins' push in the first half of the first period, after David Backes scored at 7:26.

And then Morgan Rielly tied the game at 14:05 of the first on a 4-on-4, a goal that would stand up until the game nearly went to overtime.

But it didn't. Instead, unlike on Saturday when they settled for an overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Maple Leafs went home with two points, the Bruins with none.

"It's massive, especially to do it in the fashion that we did, regulation," Kadri said.

"That's how it's going to go for the last 11, 12 games here - it's that type of playoff hockey where one or two mistakes cost you the game. You're not going to see too much open ice out there, so it's important when you get those chances, you capitalize on them."

Video: BOS@TOR: Andersen fights off shots to deny Bruins

It was a game that, at times, became chippy and contentious, with Leo Komarov and Brad Marchand engaging, with Patrice Bergeron taking exception to a hit by Nikita Soshnikov. It was a game in which passions ran high, in which emotions were raised, given the stakes.

And that was especially true for the Maple Leafs.

"We've had moments where we haven't exactly done that, but I think we've learned from them and we've gotten better as the year's gone on," Rielly said of grinding out wins. "When you come down the stretch and you play in these important games late in the season, you learn a lot. This is where you learn how to win."

Since the Maple Leafs returned from an ugly trip to California, finishing a run of no wins in five games, they have gone 5-1-1, reasserting themselves in a playoff race that briefly looked to be slipping from their fingers. They have a chance to vastly improve their positioning in the playoffs, a concept that would have been almost laughable to start the season.

The Maple Leafs could catch the Bruins, taking over third place in the Atlantic, which offers a series against the No. 2 team in the division, currently the Ottawa Senators. That would be a far better draw than the second wild card, which brings with it the best team in the Metropolitan, which could be the Washington Capitals or the Columbus Blue Jackets or the Pittsburgh Penguins, all still capable of winning the Presidents' Trophy.

"It's a different look," Kadri said. "Either way, we're going to be playing some good teams and if we want to get to our end goal, which is the Stanley Cup, we're going to have to go through some good teams anyway. Right now, our focus is on getting in; don't matter which place we get in. Obviously the higher, the better."

They took one more step forward Monday. And with it, the standings got even tighter, even closer, even more likely to yield a playoff berth for the Maple Leafs.

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