After clinching a playoff spot on Wednesday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs will host the fading Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.
The Maple Leafs (31-13-5, 67 points), who lead the North Division, confirmed their inevitable postseason berth with a 4-1 victory over the host Montreal Canadiens.
The Canucks (19-21-3, 41 points) saw their faint playoff hopes take another hit with a 6-3 loss to the host Ottawa Senators on Wednesday.
“We felt like a playoff team for quite a long time, yet you still have to accomplish it,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “It is part of the journey.We said to our team before the game, we had an opportunity to do it on our terms, so we might as well get it done and take care of that piece of business.”
A highlight of the game was the league-leading 35th goal of the season by Auston Matthews on a midair takeaway and wrist shot.
Matthews had difficulty explaining the play himself. “I don’t know, it all kind of just happened fast,” he said. “Just saw the puck and tried to get it on my stick. … it just happened really fast.”
Two Maple Leafs veterans reached milestones. Joe Thornton became the seventh NHL player to record 1,100 career assists. Jason Spezza had two assists, and his 966 career points matched Canadiens great Maurice Richard for 99th all-time.
“Those guys were in the offensive zone snapping the puck around to each other, and it’s a cool thing,” Keefe said. “Those guys have accomplished a great deal. They’ve been elite, elite players for a very long time, and to have them teaming up for us in that role (on the fourth line) and being such great leaders for us, it’s outstanding.”
The Canucks suffered their second straight loss to the Senators.
“We weren’t very good (Wednesday),” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “We got what we deserved. We looked a little tired physically and looked mentally tired, too. There’s no rule in the league that you can’t win when you’re tired. I actually thought we showed a little bit of mental weakness at the start of the second period with some of the plays we made.”
The game followed a 2-1 loss at Ottawa on Monday. The Canucks complete a four-game trip in Toronto on Saturday.
The Canucks are in the midst of playing a compact schedule of 19 games in 32 days after not playing for 24 days during an outbreak of COVID-19. They returned to competition on April 18 with a win over the Maple Leafs.
The effects of players not being fully recovered from the virus or not in the best of game shape showed.
“Any time we generated momentum, we just shot ourselves in the foot,” defenseman Tyler Myers said. “A lot of the game is breakouts and forechecks. When we do it hard and fast, we’re a tough team to play against — we know that. It’s obviously a tough situation and a strange situation — it’s a strange time in the whole world.
“The guys have done a great job battling through it. I don’t think this correlates with that (COVID-19) — but we can make better plays and smarter decisions with the puck.”
–Field Level Media