The much-improved Toronto Maple Leafs, with 26 points in 20 games thanks to an impressive 11-5-4 record, are only two points ahead of last year's pace at the quarter pole. "Really?" defenceman Tomas Kaberle said when told of the numbers Friday.
Indeed, Pat Quinn's Leafs last season got off to a similarly strong start at 11-7-2 through 20 games. It's what happens next that will differentiate the clubs.
"We can't have that losing streak like we had in January last year," Leafs centre Matt Stajan said Friday after practice. "We can't go in a funk like that. We have to keep winning hockey games. But it's a different team here ...
"I don't see us going into a funk like we did last year," he added. "I think if that happens we have the guys in here that can lead the charge and pull us out of any trouble we get into."
All indications point to this year's version of the Leafs not falling apart this time around. The continued overhaul by GM John Ferguson has been a positive one, building a younger team with faster legs and more balance. Not to mention better defence and goaltending.
"Our makeup is quite a bit different," said veteran Leafs winger Darcy Tucker. "I think you look at a guy like Michael Peca (signed in the off-season) and his leadership for starters.
"I just find that when we do not play as well as we wanted to, there's a level of intensity that our team takes on that we didn't have last year."
Case in point, Thursday night's 2-1 overtime loss at Boston. The Leafs didn't have their 'A' game but found a way to get a point in the standings - a key ingredient in succeeding in the parity-driven NHL.
That's exactly what first-year head coach Paul Maurice is trying to build into this hockey club. The kind of basic elements that over the long haul of an 82-game season should help avoid the kind of mid-season disaster that struck down last year's team, an 1-8-2 stretch from Jan. 10 to Feb. 3 .
That can't happen again.
"I don't think there's any guarantees that it won't," Maurice said in his usual honest style.
"... (But) I like a lot of what we're doing. I think the foundation is slowly beginning to be there. Every team is going to go through that (losing) stretch, how long that stretch goes usually in my mind depends on how solid your foundation is, your basic game. So when we walk into the dressing room after dropping three in a row we say: 'We got to get back to this.' To our game.
"I think we're building a foundation that will help us get through those times but there is never a guarantee."
Again, Thursday's game in Boston comes to mind. The foundation may have stolen a point.
"Last night things were not easy for us and we were still in the game," said Maurice. "I think maybe 3-4 weeks ago, that would have been an ugly night. So that's what I'm hopeful for, that we've progressed to the point where you sense a night that's not going to be easy and still find a way to squeeze something out of it."
Most Leaf fans would have definitely taken it before the season if offered fourth place in the Eastern Conference and six games above .500 at the quarter pole. But you won't find anyone in the organization that feels they've surpassed expectations.
"I don't think we're where we want to be team-wise," said Tucker. "Our work ethic is there, we've done some good things, but we can still find more within us to be a better hockey club."
Added Maurice: "We're not ahead of my expectations. We're ahead in some areas but behind in others."
The Leafs host the New Jersey Devils on Saturday (7 p.m. ET) and it doesn't appear as though No. 1 goalie Andrew Raycroft will be in net. He's been out since last Thursday with a groin injury.
"He'd have to come in and feel 100 per cent," said Maurice. "I'm not sure he's going to be far enough along. I'd like to see him get a few more practices in. That's the kind of injury you want to be sure. And yes, some of it is weighted to the fact J.S. (Aubin) is playing well. There doesn't seem to be a great need to push this along."
Raycroft joined teammates in practice Friday for the first time since the injury.
"It feels good, it's another step, we'll keep working on it," Raycroft said afterward. "I've done a lot of work the last two or three days on the ice and in the weight room. It's holding up and it's getting stronger."