And now, back to our regularly scheduled National Hockey League programming.
For the Maple Leafs following the all-star break, it’s a return to the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. When the Leafs reconvene at the Ford Performance Centre on Sunday afternoon after a week off to prepare for a visit by the New York Islanders on Monday night, their focus will be on carrying the momentum from the three-game winning streak they had heading into the break.
The Leafs are in the first wildcard spot in the East, tied in points with the Detroit Red Wings, who are in the second wildcard position with a lower points percentage. The Leafs have three games in hand on the Wings, and three on the Tampa Bay Lightning, which is one point ahead of Toronto for third in the Atlantic Division and seven behind the second-place Florida Panthers.
Count on one of the Leafs, Wings or Lightning ending in third place in the division. There’s no other divisional team in the rearview mirror, as the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens are 10 points behind Toronto and Detroit.
“I think our team is in a great position to be primed for a little run here in the back half of the season, so we’re looking forward to playing Monday,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said after helping Team Matthews win the all-star game on Saturday. “That’s quick, but it’s all good.”
The Leafs’ goaltending picture should be complete again soon, as Joseph Woll isn’t far off from returning from the ankle injury he suffered on Dec. 7 against the Ottawa Senators. Another key factor will be the play of Ilya Samsonov, who was turning a corner when the break started. It goes without saying that a difficult decision for coach Sheldon Keefe each time he names a starting goalie would be in the Leafs’ best interest.
Tampa, meanwhile, won eight of nine going into the break, and Detroit won six of nine.
The back-to-back Stanley Cups won by the Lightning resonate with a core that has remained largely intact. Whether that experience helps in the stretch run, we’re going to find out.
“The focus now will be to get back on track and play a consistent game,” said Nikita Kucherov, who leads the NHL in scoring with 85 points, one more than Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.
“We’re hungry. When you win one, two (Cups), you still want to win. It’s the most fun thing when you lift the Cup and enjoy the moment. We’re here to win the Cup but right now, it’s just make the playoffs.”
In the West, the Avs lead the Central Division by one point over the Dallas Stars and two over the Winnipeg Jets. Colorado is four points behind the Vancouver Canucks, who are tied with the Boston Bruins for first overall with 71 points.
Since the break started, the Canucks acquired Elias Lindholm and the Jets got Sean Monahan.
“I think the (West) is wide open,” MacKinnon said. “Hockey is such an even sport with the parity.
“Teams are definitely making some moves. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I like our team for sure.”
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If you think there is a chip on the Bruins’ collective shoulders after they were upset by the Panthers in the first round last spring, you would be right. “It’s an extreme motivating push,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “It’s an experience we didn’t want to go through, but we did, and we’re going to take the positives out of it and have that sting to understand that we don’t want to ever have that feeling again. It’s a scary thing to have when you have a pissed-off team going into a playoff run again and we’re excited for another chance.” … MacKinnon said he would like to see the NHL trade deadline moved up, noting that it comes earlier in the NBA season, and Rick Tocchet agreed. “I just feel with two months left in your season, you should know who your team is,” the Canucks coach said. “I think it would be better. That’s the way I look at it.” The NHL’s March 8 trade deadline is a month later than that in the NBA, which comes on Feb. 8. The NHL season ends on April 18, the NBA season on April 14 … Rielly on the 4 Nations Face-Off next winter and the NHL’s return to the Winter Olympics: “It’s great for the game. The players, the fans have all wanted it. It’s a great opportunity to play for your country. We (himself and Auston Matthews) both had the chance to do that in the past and that really means a lot to guys. Those players who will take part in those tournaments, I think I have been waiting for that chance for a long time.” … Was there anything that surprised Rielly about his first NHL all-star game? “Nerves,” Rielly said. “I didn’t expect to get nervous or anything like that before the game. When you’re in that environment around all those elite players, I think I was a little nervous, and I did not expect that.”