TORONTO - The Battle of Ontario is headed for the conclusion you pretty much would have expected heading into the final 10 games or so at the end of the season.
One team toning up for the playoffs and seeing what it can do to improve its overall seeding in the Eastern Conference. The other, looking to be the spoiler down the stretch.
The shocker, of course, is the role reversal that has the Ottawa Senators emerging as playoff material and the Maple Leafs clinging to mathematical hopes, a scenario that, as recently as a month ago, would have been difficult to fathom. In their own way, each team has been a major surprise in a season that began with seriously differing goals and expectations.
A rebuilding year that would have been enhanced by a top draft pick would have been just fine with Sens owner Eugene Melnyk. Instead, Paul MacLean has thrust himself into the coach-of-the-year debate and reconstruction has been fast-tracked.
The less said about the past month and change for the Leafs the better, obviously. For public consumption, until the math proves otherwise, the players and management have no choice but to say the playoffs are still within range.
The reality is much different, obviously, with the Leafs left to do what they always seem to do this time of year: Be a dangerous opponent, not in the sense of the playoff race, but by strong play building for next season. Thursday’s win in Tampa qualifies, as would another here against the Senators on Saturday night, which could add to the degree of difficulty for their provincial rival’s quest to remain in the top eight.
A couple of more wins will lead to the predictable rant from Leafs fans who will start griping about how all it does is ruin draft position. But the fact is none of the young players on the Leafs roster have the luxury of tanking for a shift, never mind a dozen games or so, especially with new coach Randy Carlyle at the rudder.
What Carlyle has tried to accomplish in the two weeks since taking over — and what he hopes to continue for the remaining three weeks of the schedule — is a dizzying assignment for all involved. When he first replaced Ron Wilson, the playoffs weren’t such a distant prospect so that was his first goal.
Next up was teaching the team to play with some defensive responsibility, an area that had inexplicably gone dormant under Ron Wilson near the end of his reign. Essentially, though, Carlyle began like he was coaching at training camp and hasn’t let up. He had no time for sympathy when the team’s funk grew worse, and no patience for the mental mistakes that allowed them to get there.
Instead, he has evaluated every player, every day, whether it’s game night in Tampa or practice day in Kanata.
“What I look for more importantly is personality when they are on the ice,” Carlyle said after a swift but at times physically intense practice Friday afternoon in the Ottawa suburb. “Some have to learn that their practice is their game. I judge how people perform in practice.
“Do they have professional work traits. Do they have a professional attitude towards coming to practice and getting better every day. All those little things make up your assessment.”
While difficult to say for sure just how low the morale with the players had sunk, it picked up a little on Friday, possibly out of relief as much as anything. It’s not a stretch to suggest that a couple of wins will help the learning curve, if for no other reason than the players are going to work with a better disposition.
“It’s really been hard,” rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner said on Friday. “Having a new coach mid-season, not being used to the system ... I think we’ve done a pretty good job of it. Everyone is buying into the systems and working towards what (Carlyle) wants us to do. I think we’re almost there.”
The coach, of course, has a different view.
“I think there’s still lots of things we can continually work on,” Carlyle said. “I think there’s an improvement that has to take place on a day-to-day basis. That’s really the mindset of the coaching staff. If we can improve every day, and we’re going to ask for more of our players, then that’s going to be part of our mandate.”
In other words, the rest of March and early April is going to feel a lot like next October.