TORONTO — Everyone was waiting for what many in Toronto were were calling the biggest game of the year for the Maple Leafs.
First, the young Leafs and their Monday night adversaries in the Boston Bruins had to wait for the Air Canada Centre’s official game clock to be fixed before puck drop. Then, through a slog of a second period in a 1-1 stalemate, Toronto waited for an opportunity to break the game wide open that didn't come.
And with the Leafs teetering on the edge of the Eastern Conference playoff race for weeks now, the waiting continued: waiting to see how other teams competing for those same spots would do. Waiting to see if the team’s rookies, three of them lodged in the top four in freshman scoring, would eventually slow down.
Heck, there was likely more than a few in attendance for what was a more rollicking than normal ACC, who have been waiting over a decade for a Leafs team to finally go all in on.
Tyler Bozak, one of the longest-serving Leafs, eventually got tired of all the waiting around. With less than two minutes remaining in the third period, he scored his 17th goal of the season on the power play after a debatable Dominic Moore interference penalty that Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy called “egregious.”
“There’s not many better feelings,” Bozak said of the goal, adding that “It’s nice that we’re finding ways to win.”
With two empty net goals to seal the 4-2 win, this was the type of game that a few months back, the youthful Leafs could have let slip away. The more experienced Bruins could have waited them out.
But now, with five wins in their last seven games at a crucial point in the season, Toronto is starting to look like a playoff team. Skill is one thing, but ugly wins are a much more valuable currency come springtime in the NHL. The Leafs find themselves up three points on the New York Islanders for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 11 games remaining.
“It’s going to be tight the rest of the season,” said Bozak.
He’s not kidding. Next up are the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have already punched their ticket into the postseason, and to end the season, the Maple Leafs have a four-game stretch against the Capitals, Lightning, Penguins and the Jackets, again, to look forward to.
To get the Leafs to the postseason for the first time after a full 82 game season since 2004, the much-discussed skill will have to take a back seat to a more dogged, oft-unpleasant approach. Boring second periods like Mondays could become the norm.
And the waiting—ahem—could become the hardest part. It might very well come down to that aforementioned second tilt with the Blue Jackets on the final day of the regular season for the team to actually clinch that spot.
Still, some Leafs remain optimistic.
“I’ve said that from the start,” said Nazem Kadri, who scored his 29th goal of the season in the win, “we’re going to surprise some people.”
Their normally entertaining style of play, given their infusion of young talent, shouldn’t be surprising. But Monday’s grind-it-out victory was.
“We’ve had moments where we haven’t exactly done that,” defenseman Morgan Rielly said with a smile. “But I think we’ve learned from them and got better as the year’s gone on. When you come down the stretch and you’re playing these important games late in the season, you learn a lot. This is when you learn how to win.”
Rielly, who tied the game at one in the opening period, called the win a “Big boost” to the team’s confidence. Other veteran Leafs, however, felt the need to exercise caution. They’re one point back of the Bruins for third in the Atlantic Division with a game in hand. And that’s not enough for James van Riemsdyk, who has seen the playoffs just once in five seasons with Toronto, to start preparing mentally and physically for the playoffs.
“We don’t have that luxury,” he said. “Most teams, I think, you want to prepare for each and every day and worry about each and every day. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself because when you do that, you find yourself in trouble. We’re just trying to get better every day and if we keep doing that, we’ll put ourselves in a good position come playoff time.”
With less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Leafs won’t have to wait much longer for their final playoff destiny to be revealed.