Riding a four-game win streak that included a comeback win over Dallas and a dominant victory over Montreal, the Maple Leafs took to their practice facility ice Monday focused on their two-game road trip this week. The swing will take them to Tampa Bay Tuesday and Nashville Thursday, and given that the Lightning and Predators are the NHL's top two teams at this point in the regular season, Toronto will face a tough challenge. But as the post-season begins to appear on the horizon, squaring off against the best the game has to offer is fine by Leafs players and head coach Mike Babcock.
"I think we've played pretty good," Babcock said shortly before the team departed for Florida Monday afternoon. "We're playing Tampa (Tuesday) and I watched their game yesterday. I thought they looked like a good hockey club. And we'll get our team ready to play."
"That's tough, but we're not going to complain," centre Nazem Kadri added in regard to the schedule. "Obviously, they're great teams that have had lots of success this year. They're playing some good hockey, both of them, and it's going to take some quality hockey to beat them."
The Predators are 9-0-1 in their past 10 games and have a 25-7-4 home record, while the Bolts are 7-2-1 in their past 10 and have a 26-8-2 mark at home. The Leafs have wins over both clubs this season, but both opponents also have made significant additions at the trade deadline - Tampa Bay added veteran blueliner Ryan McDonagh, while the Preds brought back centre Mike Fisher - so Toronto's players aren't looking back at those earlier victories as a reason to get overconfident in the games to come.
"As the year goes on, things start to happen and teams develop," Kadri said. "A lot of things do change in those stretches."
"It goes by the wayside," defenceman Connor Carrick added, referring to the earlier wins. "Their teams are different now. They've both added at the trade deadline, and teams get better. Every 10-15 games, this league looks like a different game - it gets faster and faster, and by this time of year, teams have an idea of the identity they want to play with."
That said, the Leafs do have reason to believe in themselves. Despite a number of key personnel - including centre Auston Matthews, winger Leo Komarov, D-man Nikita Zaitsev and goalie Frederik Andersen - missing time with injuries, Toronto has continued to post big wins over skilled opponents. With 10 games left in the regular season, the Buds are two standings points away from tying their mark in the 2016-17 campaign, and they've demonstrated the ability to both hold onto leads and dig themselves out of a hole with timely goals. That resilience will be necessary as they deal with increased energy and push-back from opponents.
"I think we've got a good hockey club," Babcock said. "I think we've gotten better because we're deeper and another year older. We want to continue to get better, and…we've got to dig in. If we want to continue to play, we're going to have to play harder and better than we have thus far this year, and we all know that."
"I think we're pretty well-rounded for the offensive talent that we have," Kadri added. "I think our work ethic and our willpower, especially in those 50/50 battles, have been pretty good, and that's what's going to bring us more success. With experience you get more comfortable in those type of scenarios, whether it's up a goal or down a goal, you always believe you can fight back, because we've done it before."
And showing the Lightning and Predators they mean business is important to the Leafs as they finish out the regular season and steel themselves for the playoffs.
"It's what you want," Carrick said of this week's high-competition games. "You want to be playing games that mean a lot. You want to be playing games where you stare at the other team and they really want to beat you - and vice-versa. And I think that'll be the case for both games. I think all three teams would look at each other as legitimate contenders, and you want to put a stamp on the other team's back of their head - 'Hey, if we meet for best-of-seven, you're going to be in trouble.' "
"This will be great," added winger James van Riemsdyk. "Two quality teams in their buildings. This is why you play."