What a difference a few days make.
Only last Friday, the Maple Leafs were faced with the gloomy prospect of having to play back-to-backs against the Boston Bruins, a team they hadn’t won against in eight straight contests, with a valuable four points on the line.
Fast forward to Tuesday morning and the Leafs (17-12-4) had taken three of those available four points from their Northeast Division rival and were, deservedly so, feeling pretty good about themselves.
But there wasn’t much time to saviour the point they escaped Boston with on Monday night as they prepared to host the last-place Florida Panthers (9-18-6) on Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre.
As satisfying as those points were, coach Randy Carlyle knows there is still work to be done. He wasn’t particularly pleased with the performance of his top line of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk on Monday night and they were sat for part of the third period.
“I just think they’ve got to be themselves,” Carlyle said with some his players still on the ice for an optional skate. “I don’t think we’re putting unrealistic expectations on any of the three that we’re talking about. There’s some in-house statistics that bear out that they are not creating enough (opportunities) in critical areas versus what we’re giving up in the critical area with that grouping. Those are things that go on on a day-to-day basis and you do an evaluation after one game, two games, three games. You always fall back on those markers for your coaching staff and for your group and you bring those up, talk about them and try to move forward.”
By the middle of the third period Monday night Carlyle had lost patience with his top unit and van Riemsdyk in particular felt this wrath. The big winger, who hasn’t scored in seven games and didn’t register a single shot against Boston, sat for the final 12 minutes-plus of regulation and overtime.
“We just finished one-on-one meetings; we try to do them every 10 games. He (JVR) wasn’t in my group but the message was consistent from the coaching staff,” Carlyle said. “The expectations were to get his feet moving, get involved in that dirty area, win more one-on-one battles. Those are the issues, when you’re not having the type of offensive production, you’re not creating those chances, the easiest way is to get physical, get into the dirty area.
“He’s been a good player for us, he’s got 14 goals, it’s not like we’re not jumping on the guy but there’s been a dry spell and people have to make adjustments.”
It’s tough to say whether there will be any lineup changes for Tuesday night’s game. Carlyle is a coach who likes to stick with what’s working, but he didn’t rule out the possibility of some changes to his squad.
“We consider a bunch of different scenarios and I don’t know how drastic they will shake out as we prepare ourselves for tonight,” Carlyle said. “Coaches are famous for taking all day to make some decisions, especially when you don’t skate in the morning and have an optional. You have a little bit of a time frame. We’ve got some question marks as far as health to, so those are the things you’ve got to consider. We just want to make sure we give ourselves the best chance for success this evening.”
One of those question marks is defenceman John-Michael Liles, who left Saturday’s game against Boston with a sore ankle. Liles did not play Monday but was out on the ice Tuesday for the optional skate and Carlyle said he would be evaluated after the skate.
Mike Kostka, who had been a healthy scratch for five games, filled in admirably for Liles.
One thing is almost for certain, after having weathered a heavy workload on Monday night in Boston and Saturday night at the ACC goaltender James Reimer will get a rest with Ben Scrivens coming in against the Panthers.
Matt Frattin, a healthy scratch for the first time this season on Monday night, could also get back into the lineup. Carlyle said he elected to dress Marlies call-up Ryan Hamilton over Frattin against the Bruins for his penalty killing abilities but that shouldn’t be an issue against the Panthers.
The Leafs said they weren’t expecting any let down going from playing power-house Boston two games in a row to Eastern Conference cellar-dweller Florida.
“It’s a big time of the year for us, it’s a big stretch for us, we’re getting down to the end here and that can’t be an issue for us,” centre Jay McClement said.