As the latest Most Important Game Of The Season approaches for the Toronto Maple Leafs, their success will be determined by their learning skill.
There were times, in the days leading up to Monday's game against the Boston Bruins at the Air Canada Centre, when it looked as though the apple-cheeked Leafs were forgetting their lessons as soon as they were taught. Losing 7-2 to the Florida Panthers in the middle of a three-game southern trip is the prime example.
However, what followed was a 5-0 beating of the Tampa Bay Lightning and then a 2-1 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday, both better teams than the Panthers. That gave the impression the young Leafs may just have been paying attention after all.
That may be determined Monday, as the Bruins represent a modest Holy Grail for the Leafs, who say they want more than just to qualify for the NHL playoffs for the second time in 13 years. The Bruins hold down third place in the Atlantic Division, three points ahead of the Leafs, who occupy the second and last wild-card playoff spot. Third place yields a more advantageous playoff matchup, in this case either the Montreal Canadiens or Ottawa Senators, rather than serving as wild-card cannon fodder for the likes of the Washington Capitals.
"No question, you're always competing for that extra. Once you get the playoff spot, now you want a better matchup; you get a better matchup, now you want home ice. I don't know what's after that but you always want more," said Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick, who may play Monday for the first time since suffering the dreaded upper-body injury on Feb. 21.
Carrick's knowledge of playoff strategy may have run short but his heart is in the right place. Based on the Leafs' past couple of games, Toronto head coach Mike Babcock thinks the rest of his team's hearts and minds are on the right track, too.
The main lesson here, any coach will tell you, is learning how to play without the puck. The best teams know how to strangle the life out of the opposition's attack.
Losing 7-2 to Florida may turn out to be the wake-up call the Leafs needed, although it must be remembered they are still in the midst of their rebuild rather than a finished product.
"We're getting a better understanding," Babcock said after Sunday's practice. "It's very easy for you to watch a team like Chicago and you think about all their skill. When you saw them play [Saturday] night, they're above the puck all the time, tight in the [defensive] zone, make good plays.
"To me, that's important for our guys to understand: You're not getting your name on anything without playing well without the puck. For me, it's important to learn to do that and I think that's a big part of what's going on right now."
By the count of the Leafs coaches, there were just 11 scoring chances in Saturday's game, five for the Leafs and six for the Blackhawks. That is normal as the playoffs approach.
"There were no chances hardly in the game at all, so I thought we did a real nice job," Babcock said. "We did a pretty good job the game before [against Tampa] and we've had some meltdowns.
"I was showing the guys [Sunday] in all our five-game segments, scoring chances at the start [of the season] were easy to come by and now they're hard to come by. It's the same for the other team. I thought we did a good job clogging up the neutral zone so [the Blackhawks] didn't get a ton. We've got to do that [Monday night]."
The Leafs, who only have 12 games left in the regular season to determine their fate, have a little extra motivation against the Bruins. There is the lingering memory of the collapse in Game 7 of the first-round playoff series against the Bruins in May, 2013, mainly for the five players left on the present roster from that game. And there is a chance for the Leafs, who won the first three games this season against the Bruins, to sweep the season series against them for the first time since the 1924-25 season.
But this is not quite the same Bruins team the Leafs beat three times already. They fired head coach Claude Julien on Feb. 7, replaced him with assistant coach Bruce Cassidy and now come into the Air Canada Centre on a 7-3-0 roll in their past 10 games.
"We're looking to catch them for sure," Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said. "Monday is a great way to do that. It's almost a four-point swing and we'd get ourselves right back in it."