FILE - Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson watches the final seconds wind down during third period NHL hockey action against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, Saturday October 24, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Richard Lam
TORONTO - It was the kind of moment where Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson couldn't help but feel a little optimistic.
Standing in front of hundreds of kids on an outdoor rink Tuesday, he told the crowd that he expects his 29th-place team to make a run at the playoffs.
"Just keep believing," Wilson said. "I think we're eventually going to get there."
There is an undeniably good vibe around a team that has gone 6-1-2 over its past nine games and is starting to narrow the gap between itself and eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The Leafs were still five points back of Tampa heading into play on Tuesday, but the mountain no longer seems too high to climb.
With the team in good spirits, the timing of its annual outdoor practice couldn't have been much better.
Players wore neck warmers on a crisp December afternoon and heard chants of "Go Leafs Go!" while being put through their paces. Less than 24 hours after a 5-2 victory over Atlanta, everyone was feeling good.
"It's easy to come here today and have some smiles on our faces," said defenceman Francois Beauchemin.
Smiles were much tougher to find back in October, when the Leafs dug themselves a big hole by starting the season 0-7-1. The rough stretch has left little room for error the rest of the way.
Toronto is targeting December as a crucial month to make a move in the standings. With the team essentially playing every other day, it has a chance to pile up some points in a hurry.
There's already a feeling that things are heading in the right direction.
"We've been aware of the gap between us and eighth place and all we've been trying to do for the last couple weeks is close that gap," said defenceman Mike Komisarek.
The Leafs are facing another set of back-to-back games, hosting the New York Islanders on Wednesday before visiting Boston on Thursday. They close out the week by hosting league-leading Washington on Saturday.
One bright spot of late has been the production from the top line of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan and Phil Kessel. Those guys have combined for 21 points over the past six games while spending most of the time together as a unit.
Kessel, with 10 goals in 17 games as a Leaf, seems to be enjoying his new surroundings.
"I'm feeling more comfortable," he said. "I think we've got some chemistry going. I think (Stajan) is starting to know where I'm going to be at. We're reading off each other so it's going right."
Thursday's game in Boston will mark Kessel's second visit to his former home in less than a week. Wilson said the winger was a "wreck" prior to Saturday's 7-2 loss there - the Leafs only bad performance in the past three weeks - and expects his star player to be more comfortable this time.
Another aspect of Toronto's game that seems to be providing some comfort of late is the goaltending. Vesa Toskala looked sharp during the win over Atlanta on Monday and Jonas Gustavsson is expected to make a return to the lineup soon.
With so many pieces falling in place, it's not surprising that the mood of the players is decidedly more positive. They all realize the importance of continuing to build on their good run.
"Last game was a good step," said Komisarek. "We got a couple goals, we've got some confidence, we built some momentum, we got the fans behind us. The building was loud and excited, the atmosphere was great.
"We've got to keep that going."
Added Kessel: "We're just trying to get on a roll here, win some games and get ourselves back in it."
Notes: The refurbished rink the Leafs practised on is the 10th completed project the team has been part of in Toronto ... More than $235,000 was spent on upgrades and improvements to the rink.