TORONTO – The Maple Leafs have nothing tangible to strive for as regular season winds down.
Playoff seeding and home-ice advantage are both secured.
Staying healthy and dialed into the details are paramount for a team that hasn’t tasted any spring success in almost two decades as it prepares to embark on another quest to get over its painful post-season hump.
Individual accomplishments are one area where the games still matter for Toronto.
One player inched closer to a milestone Saturday night. Another received an unexpected moment in the sun.
Mitch Marner had two goals and an assist to set a career-high with 98 points on the season and Jett Alexander — a goaltender signed to an amateur tryout for the game with the Leafs in a salary cap bind — saw action over the final 70 seconds in Toronto’s 7-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
Marner is now two points shy of becoming just the fourth player in franchise history to reach 100 points, joining Darryl Sittler (twice), Doug Gilmour (twice) and Auston Matthews (once).
“Definitely a cool thing,” the 25-year-old said with three games remaining. “Try not to focus on stuff like that. But it’s hard when you’re this close.”
“Would love to see it,” added Leafs captain John Tavares, who scored twice against Montreal. “He’s right there.”
Matthews, with a goal and three assists, Michael Bunting, with a goal and an assist, and William Nylander provided the rest of the offence for Toronto (47-21-11). Ryan O’Reilly and Erik Gustafsson each added three assists.
Ilya Samsonov made 20 saves.
“We were really connected,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We were in control of the game and didn’t really do anything to jeopardize that.”
With fellow goaltender Matt Murray still out due to a head injury, the Leafs signed Alexander — a 23-year-old netminder for the University of Toronto — hours before puck drop to serve as Samsonov’s backup instead of recalling third-string option Joseph Woll from the minors.
“Pretty special,” said the native of Bloomfield, Ont. “Pretty nerve-racking, obviously, but something I’ll remember.”
Alexander played the final 1:10 with the Leafs up six, but didn’t register a save after getting tapped on the shoulder.
“It was just, ‘Jett, you’re going in,’” he said. “Hopped over the boards and just kinda blacked out.”
Jonathan Kovacevic replied for overwhelmed Montreal (31-43-6). Sam Montembeault stopped 39 shots.
“Tough result and not the way we wanted to play,” Canadiens defenceman Chris Wideman said. “They had a good night.”
The blue-liner also wasn’t happy the Leafs put Alexander into the fray late.
“They’ll get what they deserve in a few weeks,” said Wideman, seemingly in reference to the upcoming playoffs for team that hasn’t advanced since 2004.
“That’s just my opinion, but it is what it is.”
Locked into a first-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning — Toronto has also clinched home-ice advantage in the series — the Leafs went up 1-0 when Marner scored his 29th goal of the season on a power play midway through the opening period.
The rebuilding Canadiens finally got their first and only shot of the opening 20 minutes before Marner registered point No. 97 with a pass to Tavares on another man advantage for his 34th.
Montreal responded early in the second when Kovacevic’s point shot hit Marner for the defenceman’s third.
But the one-way traffic quickly resumed when Nylander redirected his 38th and a 3-1 lead.
Marner then scored his 30th for the winger’s third point of the night to set a new career-high.
Toronto had a brief scare earlier in the period when Samsonov, who missed time with a knee injury this season, appeared to hurt the same leg, but the Russian stayed in the game after speaking with a trainer during a TV timeout.
“Sammies never break, ya?” Samsonov deadpanned. “Everybody knows this … it’s OK. I feel good.”
Alexander, meanwhile, had his heart skip a beat on the bench — similar to Toronto’s tortured fan base.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Oh no,’” he recalled.
Tavares added his 35th on another Toronto power play in the third. Matthews then ripped his 39th before Bunting tipped in his 23rd on another man advantage.
Alexander rounded things out by getting his moment with 70 seconds left in regulation when he entered to a roaring ovation.
But did the university netminder wish he’d faced at least one shot?
“From the blue line, maybe, with no traffic,” Alexander, who’s in the middle of exams, said with a smile. “Whether you get a shot or not, it’s 70 seconds on the ice (and) a game played in the NHL.
Sidelined all season with a knee injury, Canadiens goaltender Carey Price watched the morning skate from Montreal’s bench.
The 35-year-old, who’s playing future remains very much in doubt, had dinner with some of his teammates Friday.
“Great to catch up,” Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki said.
Bruising winger and Toronto native Wayne Simmonds suited up for just his 18th game of the season — and potentially his last as a Leaf at Scotiabank Arena.
With the team set to close out the regular schedule on the road before the playoffs, and a deep roster of forwards at Keefe’s disposal, the 34-year-old pending unrestricted free agent’s future with the organization is up in the air.
“You grow up watching games like these,” Simmonds, who fought Montreal’s Michael Pezzetta in the first period and was involved in another skirmish in the third, said following the morning skate.
“To be able to play in another one in my career is amazing.”
Toronto: Closes out the regular season with three straight road games beginning Monday in Florida.
Montreal: Visits the New York Islanders on Wednesday before winding up its 2022-23 campaign Thursday at home against Boston.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2023.
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