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The Toronto Maple Leafs finish out their four-game homestand against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday, but have to be looking over their shoulders as the Tampa Bay Lightning closed the distance in the race for home-ice advantage for the first round after sweeping a two-game mini-series against the New Jersey Devils.
The Lightning’s 4-1 win on Tuesday and 4-3 shootout victory on Thursday coupled with the Leafs consecutive losses to Buffalo and Colorado have the reigning Eastern Conference champions within one point of Toronto (with the Leafs having two games in hand).
"This time of year you start to look a little more (at the standings) than you do in the first half. You start to think about playoff implications and who you might get or how home ice might look." Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said on Saturday. "Every team wants (home ice) going into playoffs. You don't want to have to be on the road that first week. So it's a good opportunity for us to have a goal to chase and (have) some motivation here down the stretch."
The Leafs will have to fend off Tampa playing 10 of their remaining 15 games on the road, while Tampa’s 13-game schedule is split nearly down the middle (6 home, 7 away).
Toronto will be wearing their green and white throwback St. Pats uniforms and will stick with their 11 forwards, seven defensemen alignment on Friday, but head coach Sheldon Keefe indicated that his blueliner group will be altered slightly, with Luke Schenn returning to the lineup after missing the last five games due to the birth of his child and Justin Holl sitting.
The former Leaf first-rounder has fond memories of his four-year stint with Toronto and is looking forward to playing his first Toronto home game in 11 seasons.
"Just being out there in the morning skate obviously, (there were) a lot of flashbacks, a lot of memories, and I'm just super excited to come back here and play in front of this organization and this fan base," Schenn said. "I've been here a few times on the visiting side in the last decade or so, but it's pretty special to come back and be in this dressing room and come out through this tunnel and be on this bench."
Keefe will stay with Ilya Samsonov after he put forth a solid 28-save performance against the Avalanche and because of his excellent record at SBA (17-2-2, 1.95 GAA, .928 save %). Matt Murray will start in Ottawa in the second of back-to-back games.