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As Pens showdown looms, Leafs buckle up for stretch run

by Adam Proteau Proteautype /

The Maple Leafs have 14 regular-season games remaining in the 2017-18 campaign, and although they're currently seeking to end a four-game losing streak, they're also gearing up to embark on a lengthy playoff run. As always, the job of Toronto head coach Mike Babcock is to keep his players in the here and now, focused on their next opponent while understanding where they are in the bigger picture. 

And right now, their next opponent - the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins - is about as dangerous as they come. The Pens have won three games in a row and seven of their past 10, and currently sit atop the Metropolitan Division. If there is a weakness for them, it's their road record (14-17-3), and given that the Leafs have carved out a stellar 22-8-2 mark at Air Canada Centre, Saturday's tilt presents an excellent opportunity for Toronto to get back on the winning side of the ledger.

That said, it won't be easy. Pittsburgh has been fortunate for years now to employ two generational talents in centres Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Pens management has done a bang-up job of surrounding them with talent each and every season. This year, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford acquired centres Derick Brassard from Ottawa and Josh Jooris from Carolina prior to the trade deadline, and, once again, they look like a team capable of having success at the time of year the games count most.

"They have lots of good players, and (Brassard) gives them more depth as well," Babcock said after practice Friday. "They've done a real nice job of creating depth…You've got to give those guys a lot of credit. They've got a team that's built for this year, they're pushing hard to have a lot of success this year. It should be a lot of fun for us."

"They have a lot of depth, a lot of scoring and when you look at their lineup, there's very good players on all four lines," added Leafs blueliner Morgan Rielly. "So it makes it difficult to match up against."

The Leafs have split their two previous meetings - both of them, road games - with the Penguins this season, beating them 4-3 Dec. 9 and losing 5-3 Feb. 17 - and since their last showdown, Pittsburgh has built up the NHL's top power play (with a 26.4 percent success rating). Staying smart and playing disciplined will be crucial Saturday as Toronto aims to cut down on a goals-against number that has been too high of late.

"Everybody knows there's a lot of skill on that power play, a lot of hockey sense, a lot of creativity," Leafs centre Tomas Plekanec said. "It's going to be a great challenge for us."

Nine of Toronto's final games will be contested at Air Canada Centre before the regular season comes to an end April 7 against the Montreal Canadiens. The Leafs' strong play at home is a good harbinger they'll be able to correct their current slump, and their history under Babcock suggests they'll focus on their problem areas and get back to the winning ways that have marked most of the season. But the reality is every NHL franchise, no matter where they sit in the standings, goes through difficult periods - and the best ones inevitably find a road back to the victory column.

"There's always ups and downs in everything you do," Babcock said. "You can't control everything, and I've seen with this group, we get rolling pretty good, and then we come off it a little bit and we've got to dig your way out…so just work hard, do good things and good things will happen to you."


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