John Tavares made sure he left Long Island in a better frame of mind this time after potting the winner silencing the hostile crowd leading the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 2-1 playoff clinching victory over the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum Monday.
The Isle fans weren’t quite as obnoxious, belligerent or hostile as the first visit but still made sure 91 and the rest of his mates knew they weren’t exactly bosom buddies. The tailgaters for the most part were well behaved with the odd exception that’s to be expected, but certainly nothing like a few weeks ago.
The win assures Toronto a playoff spot and a big sigh of relief exhaled out of Leafs Nation once this one was put to bed. Tavares actually had a shot at the empty net and a few of his teammates tried to set him up; it almost backfired.
Everyone on the bench played with a purpose, looking like the team fans and alike imagined when the season began many months ago. Mitch Marner had a strong game while Frederik Andersen looked like his old self with a terrific performance in goal.
The team played with a desperation that has been sorely lacking the last month; Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman like dogs on a bone had the Isles defense coughing up pucks, turning it over and making hasty decisions. Nazim Kadri played with the edge he needs to bring every shift if they expect to have a meaningful playoff round.
The visitors had the better of the chances and controlled most of the play but the Islanders never quit and their persistence got them within one and they made a valiant push to even the match in the dying seconds but Andersen closed the door. He got a little help with some missed nets and blocked shots but that’s all part of it.
Calle Rosen summoned from the Marlies to fill the defensive void until Jake Gardiner returns, made a strong case to stay with the big club. Not only did he open the scoring with his first NHL goal, he paired well with Travis Dermott to give coach Babcock some viable options to think about moving forward. Dermott did point out that both he and Rosen notched their first goals against the Islanders.
The anticipated match up against the Boston Bruins is set; the only thing to be officially decided is home ice. Yes you heard correct; the Bruins have recently lost a few games and hold a 4-point advantage over the Leafs. The Bruins have 3-games remaining visiting both Columbus and Minnesota, both fighting for their playoff lives, before wrapping up the season against nemesis, the Tampa Bay Lightning. There is a slim chance they lose all three, not likely, but possible. Toronto on the other hand has home tilts against Carolina and Tampa before finishing at the Bell Centre Saturday. The blue and white have their hands full as well with two of the three having playoff implications. It’s why they play the games folks.
The decision now is what to do? Do you start Andersen against Carolina on back-to-back nights instead of the unreliable Garret Sparks and take a shot at home ice? Leafs Nation held its collective breath when Auston Matthews left the game after talking a shot on the ankle. He did return thankfully; rest or play him?
While last nights effort has been some time in coming, the playoff mood exhibited against the Islanders started with the morning skate. No hooting and hollering during the drills; it was quiet; pace of the workout was quick, sharp and focused.
The players know what’s at stake.