Maple Leafs into post-season with win over Senators
Call it a business trip if you want, but when the Maple Leafs boarded a team charter for Florida late Saturday night, there couldn’t be a more anticipated destination for the long-suffering franchise.
Forget the Sunshine State, though, because for the first time in nine years, the longer-term highlight of the itinerary includes a trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs, a feat that has ended the NHL’s longest current drought of missing the post-season.
A grinding 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday at Scotiabank Place, coupled with the Winnipeg Jets shootout loss to the New York Islanders in the afternoon, allowed the Leafs to maintain fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 55 points and clinch a playoff spot for the first time since the spring of 2004.
Toronto coach Randy Carlyle has been adamant in playing down the significance of the playoff absence, but in his first complete season behind the bench he clearly knows what it means to the team’s long-suffering fan base and to a franchise stocked with young talent and potentially on the upswing.
“I use the word respect,” said Carlyle, who shook the hands of each of his assistant coaches as the final horn sounded. “I think the fans have been diehards.
“It’s one of those things that for a period of time, there’s been a lot of sand kicked in the faces of the people of Toronto. Hopefully this gives them something to stand up and cheer for.”
At the end of Saturday’s game, there were thousands in the building that were doing just that, saluting another brilliant effort by goaltender James Reimer and an energetic third period in which the team seemed as though it could smell the finish line of at least qualifying for the Stanley Cup tournament.
“It has been a long two weeks,” Leafs general manager Dave Nonis told Sun Media on his way to the Toronto dressing room. “The break couldn’t come at a better time.”
The Leafs still have three games remaining — in Tampa on Wednesday, in Sunrise, Fla., on Thursday and back home to face the Habs next Saturday. Over that span, they will have a chance to solidify fifth place — and an outside shot at moving up — plus the opportunity to watch how the rest of the first-round seeding in the Eastern Conference plays out.
The Leafs made good on the opportunity presented to them earlier in the day when the Jets — the only team outside of the top eight that could catch them — fell at home. So when James van Riemsdyk scored a pair of second-period goals, to give him 18 on the season, you could sense that the Leafs had put behind them the pair of poor losses they suffered earlier in the week.
The Sens scored in the final minute of that period just to ensure some late-game anxiousness, but with an intermission to regroup and analyze what was at stake, the Leafs came out ready. Reimer, who has owned the Senators throughout his career and is now six-for-six in the Capital, had another outstanding night, making 49 saves to ensure the win.
“You hear all around the city ... the buzz is just electrifying,” said Leafs forward Nazem Kadri, whose insurance marker at 14:10 of the third gave the Leafs a 3-1 lead and some welcome breathing space. “It really makes you want to try even harder.
“Everyone is very pumped for this, but by no means is it over. We’re always looking to finish higher and that’s why we have to make sure not to take our foot off the gas pedal.”
With the struggles the past couple of contests, the Leafs needed to return some calmness to their game and did so in an important third period against the Sens.
“Obviously when things aren’t going your way and you start to slide a couple of games, some dark thoughts kind of creep into the back of your head,” Kadri said. “It’s just a bunch of ‘what ifs.’ It was just nice to eliminate all those questions right now with a big win and big performance.
“That’s what you need heading into the playoffs - everyone feeling good, everyone feeling confident.”
Carlyle’s transformation of a team that was an Eastern Conference bottom feeder the past several seasons received its most significant validation with the playoff berth.
A Cup winner behind the Anaheim Ducks bench, Carlyle will be the first coach in the past three to lead Toronto the post-season, an achievement that Ron Wilson and Paul Maurice before him were unable to accomplish.
“When we started in January, our sights were set on trying to qualify for the playoffs,” Carlyle said. “It’s been a drought for our hockey club. We’re trying to earn respect back for our group and to me, that’s the most important thing.”
And the best destinations that awaits.