There can be no more excuses for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
With the NHL trade deadline behind them and only 20 games remaining in their schedule, the Leafs must now focus on the task at hand — winning some hockey games.
Toronto, which has gone 1-7-1 in its past nine games to fall all the way down to tenth spot in the Eastern Conference, plays host to the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers Tuesday night in desperate need to stop the bleeding.
On Monday, not long after the 3 p.m. cut-off for NHL trades had come and gone, Leafs general manager Brian Burke blamed the deadline for being a major distraction to his players, calling it a “millstone” around their necks.
Burke didn’t make any major changes to his roster at the deadline, instead sticking with a group he believes is “capable of making the playoffs.”
Starting at the Air Canada Centre against the Panthers (29-20-12), a team the Leafs will undoubtedly be battling for that final spot in the East, the hockey world will see if Burke is right.
“He made it very clear he has faith in us and he’s been extremely loyal to us to a person and as a group and we have to take that and do what we can to make sure his decision was the right one,” said goaltender James Reimer, who will start his third consecutive game.
“We know what we have to do in here and starting tonight we’re going to go out there and put it all on the line.”
There’s no doubt that when playing in a market like Toronto, the trade deadline will be a bit of a distraction. But as pros you can’t really blame it for falling into a funk at such a crucial time of the season.
Still, the players seem to be relieved the deadline is behind them.
“It’s been lots of hype and talked about a lot, so to finally get it over with and just focus on the rest of the season and try to help this team to the best of your ability is going to be a nice change of mindset," said defenceman Luke Schenn, whose name kept popping up in trade rumours. "Guys aren’t walking around on eggshells as much. You never really know what the plan is or who is going where.
“It’s a big game tonight for us and hopefully we can start on the right foot and turn things around here with nothing else on our mind but hockey. Now that we have our team in place going forward and this is the roster down the stretch, I think everyone is a lot more comfortable and should play with more confidence out there.”
Of course there will still be minor tweaks to the roster, as defenceman Cody Franson found out. Franson will be a healthy scratch against the Panthers, while Mike Komisarek will play for the first time after sitting out four consecutive games.
It’s the 500th career game for the West Islip, N.Y., native.
“It’s always great, it’s a bit of a milestone,” Komisarek said. “But at the same time, we’re looking to bounce back and respond after the last couple of weeks.
"I think the whole trade deadline thing has been a bit of a distraction for our team and yesterday was a big vote of confidence for the guys in the room. We control our own destiny here.”
Forward Joey Crabb also is back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch against Washington on Saturday night. Colby Armstrong will sit in his place.
Tuesday’s game also marks a milestone for coach Ron Wilson. Wilson will move into a tie for fourth with Pat Quinn on the all-time list for games coached at 1,400.
"It’s a lot of games, I can tell you that,” Wilson said. "I’m proud to have coached 1,400, there's no doubt.”
Jose Theodore will get the start in net for the Panthers, who won the previous two meetings between these clubs this season.
Former Maple Leaf Kris Versteeg will miss the game due to a lower-body injury.