LEAFS STILL GET­TING UP TO SPEED DE­SPITE RECORD

Bab­cock says for­ward line com­bi­na­tions and as­sign­ments will con­tinue to change

Ottawa Citizen - - SPORTS - TERRY KOSHAN

Right now, we just have to get play­ing. That’s our fo­cus. Get ev­ery­body up and run­ning and we will go from there.

On pa­per, all of Mike Bab­cock’s ducks are in a row.

The coach knows, how­ever, that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ pic­ture is far from be­ing com­plete.

Through 34 games, the Leafs find them­selves in second place over­all in the Na­tional Hockey League with 46 points, eight be­hind the first-place Tampa Bay Light­ning.

The Leafs have been lucky in a sense, as they have lost just 17 man-games to in­juries.

Star cen­tre Aus­ton Matthews hasn’t come all the way back af­ter miss­ing 14 games with a shoul­der in­jury and Wil­liam Ny­lan­der re­mains on a long road, hav­ing played in just six games af­ter sign­ing a con­tact on Dec. 1. Bab­cock in­ti­mated his lineup — we’re talk­ing at for­ward — re­mains in a state of flux as Matthews and Ny­lan­der work to re­turn to their high­est lev­els.

With that in mind, as much as Bab­cock likes to match lines, he is not yet set­tled on which dif­fi­cult as­sign­ments each of his top three cen­tres — Matthews, John Tavares and Nazem Kadri — might draw on a nightly ba­sis.

“Not one bit, and I’m not go­ing to spend a whole lot of time wor­ry­ing about it,” Bab­cock said af­ter the Leafs prac­tised at the MasterCard Cen­tre on Wed­nes­day.

“I’m go­ing to get ev­ery­one up and run­ning, and then I’ll spend prob­a­bly 10 games in a row of each guy get­ting their op­por­tu­nity, so they’re ready for any matchup come play­off time.

“Right now, we just have to get play­ing. That’s our fo­cus. Get ev­ery­body up and run­ning and we will go from there.”

Nei­ther goal­tender Fred­erik An­der­sen nor winger Zach Hy­man par­tic­i­pated in prac­tice on Wed­nes­day, as both were given the day to rest. Both will be in the lineup on Thurs­day night at Sco­tia­bank Arena when the Leafs play host to the Florida Pan­thers, Bab­cock said.

In An­der­sen’s ab­sence, the Leafs sum­moned York Univer­sity goalie Alex Foti­nos to guard what oth­er­wise would have been an empty net.

No one ex­pected Ny­lan­der to start tear­ing up the NHL in his first shift and Bab­cock is the least con­cerned of any­one. Ny­lan­der has two points — a pair of as­sists against Carolina last week.

While Ny­lan­der re­spects the fact that there is catch­ing up to do, he’s fight­ing against be­com­ing im­pa­tient when he sees the lack of scor­ing be­side his name.

“It gets to the point where you’re go­ing to be mad, but you want to get go­ing (and pro­duc­ing),” Ny­lan­der said. “You want to per­form.”

Bab­cock in­sin­u­ated that had Ny­lan­der not taken so long to sign a con­tract, the player would be in a bet­ter state on the ice.

“There was a way to solve that, wasn’t there?” Bab­cock said. “I didn’t say that (to Ny­lan­der) but I mean, come on. What are you get­ting frus­trated for?

“If you don’t come to train­ing camp and you don’t start the year … there was busi­ness to be done and he got his busi­ness done, but now the busi­ness to be done is to get up and run­ning.

“Get­ting frus­trated with your­self or dis­ap­pointed or what­ever word you want, it’s just a to­tal waste of en­ergy. Get ex­cited. You’re play­ing in the Na­tional Hockey League. Get to work and fight your way back. No­body is sur­prised (that Ny­lan­der is taking a while to get on track). No­body. I’m not con­cerned about it. Dig in and get play­ing.”

At some point, the ex­pec­ta­tion is Bab­cock will re­unite Matthews and Ny­lan­der. It’s not some­thing that is at the fore­front for Matthews, as much as he would like to skate along­side Ny­lan­der again.

“We have so much skill on this team, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter who you play with,” said Matthews, who has been flanked by An­dreas Johns­son and Kasperi Ka­pa­nen, “and if we con­tinue to win, I think it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter what the lines are, as long as we are play­ing well, play­ing hard and win­ning games.”

Fact is, these are triv­ial mat­ters for the Leafs, who have won 22 games.

The match against the Pan­thers will be the first of nine of 11 at home and, stretch­ing the cal­en­dar fur­ther, the Leafs will play 11 of their next 15 games in Toronto.

The Leafs are 9-5-1 at Sco­tia­bank, a record that in­cludes six wins in their past seven.

“We have been wait­ing for this stretch all year,” Kadri said. “The last cou­ple of weeks it has been quite the grind with the trav­el­ling and get­ting in re­ally late.

“But we got through it and we’re pretty happy with how we’re play­ing. It’s time to take a stand at home.”

ERNEST DOROSZUK

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Bab­cock says he is not wor­ried about Wil­liam Ny­lan­der’s slow start since join­ing the team on Dec. 1, and is cer­tainly not sur­prised by it con­sid­er­ing Ny­lan­der’s long ab­sence.

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