Sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference with 48 points entering Wednesday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs have put themselves in a favorable position to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2004.
And with each game growing more and more important as the season winds down, playoff experience is proving important for a team that doesn't have a lot of it.
One of the League's youngest teams, Toronto has 15 players on its roster who have never played in an NHL playoff game. And for the two players who have seen postseason action in the past two years -- James van Riemsdyk and Cody Franson -- there's an implicit understanding of how important Wednesday's game will be against the Rangers, who sit eighth in the East with 42 points.
"[Games] always get tight going towards the end of the season. Teams are trying to make a push or hold a spot. We're trying to put ourselves in a good position," said Franson, who saw playoff action in 2011 with the Nashville Predators. "You're going to see a lot of one-goal games coming down the stretch. That's just the way it's going to be. We're prepared for that."
The pair have been key contributors in recent weeks. Each is enjoying a three-game point streak, and van Riemsdyk has scored twice in his past three games.
The playoff atmosphere should become more intense for Toronto, whose next six games are against teams either in a playoff spot or within two points of a postseason position entering Wednesday.
"It's just that time of the year now where everything gets tighter out there. Everyone is fighting for the playoffs, fighting for positioning," said van Riemsdyk, whose 39 playoff games are tied with Joffrey Lupul for most on the team. "It's a game of two desperate teams out there. Usually whoever is the more desperate team wins the game."
The second in a home-and-home series between the Maple Leafs and New York Rangers, Wednesday night's game at Madison Square Garden will have even greater meaning for van Riemsdyk. As a member of the Philadelphia Flyers, the 23-year-old participated in several intense division matchups. Even before playing in the NHL, the Middletown, N.J., native was very familiar with the Rangers' home arena.
"Growing up, I always loved coming to the Garden and watching games here," van Riemsdyk said. "This is always a rink that is pretty special to me and I love playing games here. It's always fun coming back."