“Hold on to your hats,” Mike Babcock said as he exited the interview room at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The Maple Leafs’ head coach was referencing the wind, as his team prepares for what may be the windiest NHL outdoor game ever played on Saturday night at the United States Naval Academy. The gusts hit 76 km/h on Friday, forcing the Leafs indoors for practice. But Babcock also could have been referencing Toronto’s six-week stretch run that began as the calendar flipped to March. It’s time to buckle up. “Once we get past this,” goaltender Frederik Andersen said, “it’s back to the grind to make the final push.” Babcock called the 2018 Stadium Series an “opportunity.” There are two points on the line, of course, but it is also an opportunity to take inventory on the Maple Leafs. Because in order to get where you are going, you must know where you’ve been. Facing the Washington Capitals, who knocked the young Leafs out of the playoffs last spring, makes this weekend a fitting reflection point. Babcock called the Maple Leafs’ growth over the last 11 months “significant.” They are the ones ahead of Washington in the standings this time around. Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, who is three goals short of 600, said Friday that “everybody knows how good Toronto is, how talented they are.” The Maple Leafs weren’t going to sneak up on anyone this year – and they’ve handled that test well. “The first thing that happens when you're not a very good team, no one takes you very seriously,” Babcock said. “Then you play this year and you're a good team and every night you're getting a real game. You know how much harder it is to get points. “I just think we're significantly better because our young guys are better. They’re harder. They've been through it more. They’ve seen what it’s like. They’ve been eliminated from the playoffs. They know right away here you get in the playoffs and then 10 days later one of you is moving on and one of you goes home." Knowing that, the question facing the Maple Leafs is: How can they use the Stadium Series as a springboard to peak at the right time heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs? With such a comfortable playoff position – a cushion of nearly 20 points – and such little to play for aside from home-ice advantage, Andersen said the Leafs need to guard against “walking into the playoffs half asleep.” “It can be a little bit of a trap, when there’s so much gap to get to the next team,” Andersen said. “That’s something we really can’t allow to happen.” Morgan Rielly is among the believers that entering the playoffs on a hot streak, as opposed to backing into them, can be the difference between golfing in early May and skating into June.
No fear for Maple Leafs in peaking too early
TSN | Mar 2