Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Paul Maurice. (CPimages \'06/Frank Gunn)
It started in training camp when the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach predicted his team would be in a dogfight to make the post-season. Score one for Maurice on that front.
On Monday, he tried to downplay what appears on the surface to be a critical five-game road test beginning Tuesday night at Carolina.
"We can't look at this trip as, 'If we get these points we're fine,"' Maurice said after practice at Air Canada Centre. "Because even if we won all five games we'd be in better shape but it still wouldn't guarantee us anything.
"Believe it or not, if we lost all five, we could still come back from it."
Or at least that's what he would tell his players. The Leafs, 10th in the Eastern Conference, also play Wednesday night at New York against the Rangers, Saturday at Ottawa, next Tuesday at reborn St. Louis and Feb. 8 at the NHL's first-place team, Nashville.
It's the kind of stretch that can break the back of a bubble team like the Leafs if things don't go well, or galvanize the club if it's successful.
"It can get us rolling in either direction and if we come out and grab four of five or five of five it can really set the tone for the rest of our season," said winger Jeff O'Neill.
The Hurricanes, Rangers and Senators all rank ahead of the Leafs in the East. Hence the proverbial four-point games.
"Down the stretch these games are the difference," said forward Matt Stajan. "This is the biggest week of the year, hopefully we do well, and next week will be the biggest week of the year."
The Leafs are only two points behind the eighth and final playoff spot but with a glut of teams in the hunt, Toronto will likely have to play close to .600 hockey in the last 32 games of the season to get in.
That seven-game winless streak (0-6-1) from Nov. 25-Dec. 9 has forced this upon them.
"We went on that losing streak and we can't take that back," said Stajan. "We have to make sure we do what we can in the second half to show that wasn't enough to keep us out.
"We need to win, and it's not win two and lose two. We have to go on a little streak here and win some hockey games."
It's not easy making ground at this time of year. A big win over Montreal on Saturday produced no movement in the standings after Pittsburgh and the Rangers also won the same day.
"But that's the way this works," said Maurice. "And they're all sitting there saying the exact same thing, 'We just had a big win and we haven't moved.' Most of these teams feel reasonably decent about their first half, they had really good stretches like we did, they had a very difficult stretch like we did, they've won more than they've lost but they haven't pulled ahead of anybody."
The five road games also come at a time when GM John Ferguson must decide whether he's a buyer or a seller before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
"We don't worry about that crap," said O'Neill.
Notes: Defenceman Ian White is expected back in the lineup Tuesday night after missing six games with a shoulder injury. But forward Boyd Devereaux is unlikely to suit up after picking up an ankle injury in Saturday's game ... Star defenceman Bryan McCabe had a scare when he took a shot in the right ear and left practice. But he returned after getting medical attention ... The Leafs will actually return home after Wednesday's game in New York and practise Thursday and Friday in Toronto before heading to Ottawa and they'll also come home after Saturday's game before going to St. Louis on Monday.