The Sound of Opportunity
TAMPA--Finish hot and the first playoff game at the ACC may come earlier than expected.
Most anticipated the Maple Leafs would not have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs next week, but the stumbles of the Boston Bruins and the radical downturn in fortunes for the Montreal Canadiens has opened the door for that to change.
Catching Boston still seems out of range, although it's mathematically possible. Catching Montreal for the No. 4 seeding in the Eastern Conference, on the other hand, seems much more possible, particularly if the Leafs can make hay against the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference over the next two days. If they can win those and Montreal loses to Winnipeg on Thursday, Saturday night's Leafs-Habs clash on Bay St. could be very interesting.
Tampa, tonight's Leaf opponent, has lost six straight. The Lightning season is in a death spiral, and the objective of the club seems more likely to get a high draft pick than more wins.
Ditto for Florida, although Jacob Markstrom's 36 saves did upend the Rangers on Tuesday night, proving all these games may not be quite as easy as they look.
For the Leafs, they've got to start playing better than they did over the past 10 days, and they've got to get their engines roaring again after being on the ice just once in three days.
These final three games are also a chance for players who haven't been playing well to get their feet moving, an issue head coach Randy Carlyle has pointed to repeatedly in recent days.
A classic example would be 28-year-old winger Clarke MacArthur, who scored 20 and 21 goals in each of the past two seasons but has just seven goals in 37 games this season.
MacArthur, who has dealt with some injury problems, is goal-less in 14 games and hasn't scored since March 9. He's no longer a fixture on either of the club's top two lines.
"I want to ramp it up," he said. "It's been a struggle. Some games I've had chances and they haven't gone in, other times I just haven't felt into the game. I want to try ramp it up and be ready for the playoffs."
That in and of itself will be a new experience for MacArthur, who has 400 NHL regular season games under his belt but no playoff appearances in the NHL after seasons in Buffalo, Atlanta and Toronto. He hasn't played in a playoff game of any kind since making it with the AHL Rochester Americans in 2007.
"It's been a long time," he said. "Funny thing is, through junior I went to the Memorial Cup, and I won an AJHL championship. Since I turned pro, nothing.
"It would be nice to break the ice here. No better place to have your first playoff than Toronto."
For Matt Frattin, meanwhile, after starting the season as the club's best scorer with seven goals in 10 games, it's been a struggle just to find a lineup spot. After dressing for games against Montreal and New Jersey, both wins, he was scratched for the past three games including the playoff-clinching win in Ottawa on Saturday night.
After that hot start, the 25-year-old missed almost four weeks with a knee procedure - the stitches holding together the cartilage from off-season reconstructive surgery ripped open - and hasn't scored in 13 games since.
"I was on a pretty good pace. It's hard to maintain that, but I definitely want to get back to where I was," said Frattin.
"Obviously if you look at the stat sheet, (the knee issue) set me back quite a bit. It was bothering me while I was playing. Eventually, decided to do it rather than let it bother me all year.
"I'm just trying to work as hard as I can trying to get a game in. Hopefully get an opportunity to step in."
The Leaf staff clearly isn't happy with what Frattin has been delivering, but he says he understands what is wanted from him.
"Play fast, play physical and bring energy. That's what they tell me, and that's what I've got to do when I'm in the lineup," he said. "That's something I can buy into and bring."