If the Leafs truly expect to be considered a playoff team, tonight’s game is one of those they absolutely have to win. Going on the road, which has not been particularly friendly to the Buds this year, the Leafs will take a slightly-altered lineup to Carolina tonight, due to some of the numerous bits of news that popped up yesterday in Toronto.
Colby Armstrong was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a broken foot, suffered while blocking a shot during the Leafs’ disappointing effort against the Lightning on Monday night. Replacing him will be rookie Nazem Kadri back for his second stint with the big club this season. He’s expected to center the third line, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get some time with Phil Kessel should the Leafs struggle early. Kadri has played at a point-per-game pace in the AHL, and has been a major factor in the Marlies’ success. If he can manage to translate some of that offense to his play with the Leafs, he could be a sparkplug for a team that looks worn out from a long stretch of pressure hockey.
On the blueline, it’s expected that much-maligned defenseman Brett Lebda will be glued to the press box seats in favor of new call-up Matt Lashoff. Lebda had looked slightly better in the absence of Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin, but had struggled mightily in the last few games, with some major defensive screwups costing the Leafs some untimely goals. Lashoff has 7 goals and 28 points for the Marlies through 66 games, but if he can simply play solid defense, he’ll be an improvement at this point.
The playoff picture has gotten increasingly muddled over the last week or so, with both New Jersey and Atlanta refusing to die quietly. Both teams have surged to catch the Leafs – who went 1-3-1 in their last five – and now sit tied for 10th with 70 points. The Canes beat the Sabres to move up to 74 points, while keeping 8th place Buffalo at 76. The Rangers sit even further ahead at 78, although they have played one more game than the rest of the pack.
With 90 points looking more and more like it may not even be enough to make the postseason, the Leafs will simply have to win as many games as they possibly can over the next few weeks, and hope that they get alot of help. With Carolina, Florida and Boston on the slate for this week, the Buds certainly have their work cut out for them. Unfortunately, they don’t have many chances for crucial four-point games like this one, with a three game Western Conference road trip next week, games with Washington, Boston, Ottawa and Montreal down the stretch. Of the teams they’ll be fighting against for the final two playoff spots, they’ll only get to play the Devils and Sabres after tonight’s game.
Oh, and if that hadn’t riled you up enough, Ron Wilson has also elected to go with veteran J.S. Giguere between the pipes tonight. He’s not been great in his last few appearances, although they all came in relief of James Reimer, but it was clear that Reimer needed a break, and we’ll have to hope the kid comes back strong tomorrow night, when he’s expected to start against the Panthers.
That’s all for now, Go Leafs!