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Babcock says Fehr, Boyle bring playoff experience to rookie Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, right, celebrates a goal with centre Brian Boyle, during a game against the L.A. Kings March 2.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

If Mike Babcock is to be believed, a fourth-liner and someone who will be fortunate to play more than a handful of times in the Toronto Maple Leafs' final games of the regular season might have the most influence on their chances of making the NHL playoffs."What him and Fehr bring off the ice and as people is more important or as important as what they bring on the ice," the Leafs head coach said Monday of fourth-line centre Brian Boyle and forward Eric Fehr, who arrived on the March 1 NHL trade deadline.

"What you do is learn how to be a pro, learn how to do it right, learn respect for the game," Babcock said. "Those guys both played a ton of games. Fehrsie just won the [Stanley] Cup. It's so important that you learn what it takes to be a great pro.

"The more of those players you have in your room, the better the chance you have for success."

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The evidence shows that Babcock has a point. The Leafs' road trip through California last week was a disaster, with one point gained of a possible six. The Leafs have now lost five consecutive games.

All those games in hand they had a month ago, when they were in a playoff position, are pretty much gone. Before Monday's games, the Leafs had 70 points and sat four behind the third-place Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division and one point out of the fight for the second and final Eastern Conference wild-card playoff berth.

There are two glaring weak spots that have been there all season, sometimes lurking in the background – as the young, go-go Leafs were able to score their way to wins – but back now that a lot of NHL teams are playing no-nonsense hockey down the stretch and not giving opponents any room to skate. Once again, the Baby Leafs are not much good at holding a lead, especially in the third period. And they have a dreadful 10-7-14 record in one-goal games this season. Combine that with their league-worst 1-8 record in shootouts and you have a lot of points left on the table – enough to put them comfortably in a playoff spot.

That is where Babcock has a point about Boyle and Fehr. Blowing leads and losing one-goal games have long been the mark of young teams. Learning how to keep your head and clamp down as the pressure mounts is just as important as learning how to drill a one-timer to the top corner.

Boyle, 32, was needed because centre is the Leafs' weakest position through the whole organization. They had to have his faceoff and penalty-killing skills. But they also need him to pass on the wisdom he has gleaned from playing 100 playoff games.

Fehr, 31, does not have as many playoff games (60) under his belt, but 23 of them came last year when he was a useful forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they won the Stanley Cup.

Given that there is precious little postseason experience among the Leafs' holdover veterans – and why would there be, considering they have one playoff appearance in the past 11 years – Boyle and even Fehr become important additions.

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As well as winning some important faceoffs for the Leafs, perhaps Boyle can help the line of Mitch Marner, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk learn how to avoid the defensive mistakes that handed the Anaheim Ducks two goals in their 5-2 win over the Leafs last Friday.

Yes, Marner is the only rookie on that line. And there lies another of the Leafs' problems. As Babcock has taken to stressing of late, it is Leaf veterans such as defenceman Jake Gardiner, van Riemsdyk and Bozak who are every bit as inconsistent as their bumper crop of rookies.

Starting with Tuesday's game against the Detroit Red Wings, the Leafs have 18 games left in the regular season. On the plus side, 10 of those games are at home and nine of them are against teams that are essentially out of the playoff hunt, such as the Red Wings. Not that Babcock is counting on anything against his former employer.

"We've got to put this one away because we've got to get back in it," he said of Tuesday's game. "I'll guarantee you their players are coming here with the idea of crawling back in [the playoff race]."

Babcock made one potential change for Tuesday's lineup. He moved Connor Brown back to right wing on Auston Matthews' line, with William Nylander returning to the right side of Nazem Kadri's line at Monday's practice.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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