Toronto Maple Leafs: Game Day Headlines vs Carolina

RALEIGH, NC - DECEMBER 11: Toronto Maple Leafs Right Wing Mitchell Marner (16) skirts the puck up ice during a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC on December 11, 2018. (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - DECEMBER 11: Toronto Maple Leafs Right Wing Mitchell Marner (16) skirts the puck up ice during a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC on December 11, 2018. (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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It wasn’t easy, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are officially in the clear.

Having faced multiple opportunities to do so over the past week, the Leafs finally punched their ticket to the 2018 NHL playoffs in statement fashion last night with a win over the New York Islanders.

Now comes the hard part. With a rematch with the Boston Bruins set in stone as well, Mike Babcock and the entire Maple Leafs team can now turn their focus towards preparation for the battle ahead, fine-tuning all aspects of the roster in an effort to ensure the best result.

Namely, this means resting some of the key performers; a process that begins tonight.

In a striking turn of events from years past, the Leafs actually hold the power to determine the postseason fate of their opponent. The Carolina Hurricanes ride into town Toronto ahead of tonight’s matchup locked in a heated battle for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with the Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets.

Sitting one point up on Montreal in the final wild-card spot, the Hurricanes can effectively end the Canadiens’ season with a win against Toronto, while hoping for a Blue Jackets loss to Boston to extend their own at the same time.

Case in point; there are a lot of moving pieces heading into tonight’s matchup, and none of them bears any real impact on the Maple Leafs. For fans, that must feel pretty nice.

Let’s dive into some of the pre-game headlines.

Garret Sparks Gets the Start

To say that Garret Sparks hasn’t played too well over the past few weeks would be putting it lightly. The 25-year-old netminder has struggled mightily in spot usage as of late, earning just one win over his past five outings which unfortunately includes a dismal showing against the basement-dwelling Ottawa Senators that delayed Toronto’s clinching efforts of their own.

Sparks is set to enter the starter’s crease for tonight’s matchup with Carolina, per Mike Babcock.

A strong performance in what is expected to be his last start of the season would not only go lengths in building momentum for Sparks as he heads into the postseason, but would greatly improve his declining perception within the fanbase, as well.

All eyes will be on Sparks to shoulder the load. Frederik Andersen is expected to start the Leafs’ final two games.

Game-Time Decisions

Playing their second game in as many days, Babcock & Co. have yet to announce their projected lineup for tonight, which is to be expected. According to Paul Hendrick, there are a number of game-time decisions in the Maple Leafs’ room at the moment, and with a playoff spot already in their grasp, it may be best for the Leafs to exercise caution moving forward.

This is especially applicable to both Jake Muzzin and Andreas Johnsson, who served as the two “maybes” ahead of last night’s contest with ailments of their own. And while Muzzin eventually opted to suit up, the duo seems to be prime candidates for a rest day in preparation for Thursday’s tune-up with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Regardless of which way these decisions ultimately play out, there is an increasingly good chance that some previously unused contributors get the call tonight.

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Puck drops at 7:00 PM.