Maple Leafs look to end another losing streak against rival Habs

Nazem Kadri #43 of the Toronto Maple Leafs checks Brian Strait #37 of the New York Islanders into the boards at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on February 12, 2015 in Uniondale, New York. Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

MONTREAL – A Saturday night game against the rival Montreal Canadiens could be what the Toronto Maple Leafs need to set aside their anxieties in the midst of a losing run and speculation about trades.

The Leafs (23-29-4) go into the game against the Eastern Conference-leading Canadiens amid talk that management is ready to tear the team down and rebuild for the future.

With the March 2 NHL trade deadline approaching, jitters are inevitable, especially for those mentioned in trade rumours.

“It’s obviously tough to deal with, especially with the great group we have,” forward Nazem Kadri said after practice Friday at the Bell Centre. “It’s a hard pill to swallow for guys to get broken up like that.

“But I don’t think it’s so much of a rebuild as a retool. I don’t think we’re going to be starting from scratch. There might be some changes they have to make but for us, as players, we just have to focus on what we can control on the ice.”

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Kadri said the Leafs have been living with the threat of big changes for a while.

“It’s not like it just started yesterday,” he said. “It’s something that’s definitely anticipated and, like I said, it’s tough to see some guys go if they are, but it’s part of the business and that’s just how hockey goes.”

The names most often mentioned for trades are star winger Phil Kessel, centre Tyler Bozak, defenceman Cody Franson and currently injured rearguard Dion Phaneuf, although other names have popped up.

Evidence that players are getting edgy came after a 3-2 loss to the Islanders in New York on Thursday night, when Kessel was asked about the trade rumours and responded: “I love Toronto, but if it’s not here, it’s not here.”

Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the New York Islanders at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on February 12, 2015 in Uniondale, New York. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Now they hope to set that aside for at least a night and focus on a nationally televised game against their oldest rival.

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It is only the second of four meetings this season with Montreal. The Canadiens took the season opener 4-3 in Toronto in October.

“It’s always a good building, and playing in Montreal is always special,” said Leafs defenceman Stephane Robidas, who began his career with the Canadiens. “It will be my first game as a Leaf in Montreal.

“We have to use it on our side, get the compete level going from the start of the game.”

Robidas has seen teams torn down at the trade deadline before. He was with the Dallas Stars in 2013 when they traded Jaromir Jagr, Brenden Morrow and Derek Roy ahead of the deadline. He said the Stars then went on a surprise winning run and fell just short of making the playoffs.

“It’s really up to the players in the room,” said Robidas. “There’s a lot of distractions, a lot of speculation, a lot of people with opinions, but for us, all we can do is play.

“Giving up is not an option, no matter who is in your lineup, or who’s hurt or who’s traded. You can’t give up.”

The Leafs are 2-13-1 since Peter Horachek replaced Randy Carlyle as head coach and began installing a more defensive game on a team that had been high-scoring but loose in its own end.

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Lately, defensive lapses have been costing goals, with Franson as one of the culprits with costly giveaways in two straight games.

Horachek confirmed that Franson has been playing through a hip injury but said the defenceman “is going to have to face up to that and deal with it.

“Those are two (mistakes) you don’t see out of Cody very often. He’s usually one of our more consistent guys, especially moving the puck.”

He said Jonathan Bernier will start in goal.

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