TORONTO - The must-win headlines will continue for as long as there is at least a shred of validity to them.
But even as time ticks down on the possibility of a dream ending to another tough season, the Leafs refuse to concede defeat.
“We’re not going anywhere yet,” Leafs centre Tim Brent said following a practice Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre before the team jetted to Raleigh, N.C., for Wednesday’s date against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“We were a little on edge today. We got pumped (6-2 to Tampa on Monday) but we’re moving forward and eager to get last night’s game out of our head.”
With 70 points and just 12 games remaining, the math would suggest rather forcefully that the Leafs need to win a minimum of nine of those contests and more likely 10. Losing either of their remaining games against Carolina or the Buffalo Sabres would make their situation only more grim.
And eight of those remaining 12 being on the road, where admittedly the Leafs have played well lately, only adds to the challenge.
But should desperation lead to elimination for a sixth consecutive season, there’s little doubt that the Leafs will have benefitted from the thrill of the race, however futile it may turn out to be.
For back-to-back games in Carolina and Florida over the next couple of nights, the team will have its too latest promotions from the Marlies — forward Nazem Kadri and defenceman Matt Lashoff in the lineup.
Even if what seems like the inevitable happens this spring, that’s two more players with the chance to experience the desperation of even a long shot playoff push.
“Having to push and battle where every game is important for real, not just to knock a team off their playoff hopes but to improve our own, those are the positive things you go through at a time like this,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said on Tuesday.
“It looks a little bleak right now, but we haven’t lost in regulation in six games on the road now. You go out there and do your best and claw your way back in.”
While Wilson has pulled out all the stops in the past handful of games — shortening his bench and riding the once red-hot James Reimer in net — he acknowledged on Tuesday that his team is now “at the mercy of what other teams do.”
As his team settled in to their Raleigh hotel Tuesday night, Wilson faced the potential of the situation getting even more bleak before the night was out.
A New Jersey win over Atlanta, for example, would technically put the Leafs in 10th place in the conference. And with Buffalo and Carolina clashing, the dreaded three-point game was once again a potentially disruptive game.
“I don’t expect our team to win nine in a row or anything like that,” Wilson said. “We just have to deal with the next game and the next period and the next shift.”
The downside of playing must-win every night is the fatigue factor such intensity can create. The Leafs clearly had an emotional letdown when they fell two goals down to the Lightning on Monday. And as inspired as his play has been at times, Reimer is starting to look like the AHL-calibre goalie he was when the season began.
“That’s the beauty of hockey, you don’t have too many days to sit there and sulk about it,” Brent said. “You’ve got to get back and go at it soon.”
However long they keep on the lead lap of the race, management gets yet another opportunity for a glimpse at the future.
The promotion of Kadri comes to fill the void left by hard-luck Colby Armstrong, who Wilson confirmed is out four-six weeks after breaking a bone in his foot while blocking a shot on Monday. Lashoff is up to provide some depth on defence, especially given the recent struggles with the third pairing of Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda.
“We’ve identified some guys we weren’t sure about being NHL players who have come in and done a good job,” Wilson said. “They’ve gained confidence and experience.”