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Looking To Gain Ground

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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It takes about two kilometres to stop a good-sized freight train going 70 kilometres per hour.

We get to see whether hockey teams can be turned around a little faster.

Fresh off an invigorating shootout win over the Boston Bruins, the Maple Leafs head into a vicious couple of weeks that begins in Washington tonight. They shuffle over to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, face the Flyers at ACC on Thursday and kick back with a home date with Montreal on Saturday.

Combined, those teams are 70-31-10 and for a Leafs team finding its legs after a nightmarish November, the money is on the table.

The Leafs are nine points out of eighth and with four teams, Florida, Buffalo, Carolina and Ottawa between Toronto and eighth place Atlanta, surrendering more ground would go a long way in making this a frostier winter.

On the surface, the numbers do not support the notion of a Leafs’ revival, even if they are coming off their most emotional win of the year in the victory over Boston.

Still, there are mitigating circumstances.  In about a week, Dion Phaneuf will return from a leg injury to goose a stale power play and ease the extra minutes under which the defence corps has buckled.

Colby Armstrong’s return to the lineup jolted the team’s toughness and save for his last game, Jonas Gustavsson has been a terrific asset in goal.

The team’s struggle to score is exacerbated on the road where they have only scored 16 times in a 10 road games. They are given up 33 road goals in that same stretch.

But now is the time to see if the Leafs have the juice to get back into the race. Realistically, if the club could harvest a point a game over the next four games, the scenario improves.

The Leafs need to climb to within five points by year’s end. That’s 11 games to gain four points.

Easy, right? Not so fast.  Next week, the Leafs undertake their annual Western Canada road trip.

That means games against the Oilers (who waxed Toronto 5-0 in their last meeting), Calgary and an excellent Vancouver team. The Leafs lost all three road games against those teams last season.

Things loosen up later in the month. If the Leafs are still in the playoff orbit by the second half of December,  they have winnable home games against Atlanta, Carolina and Columbus and a road date in New Jersey.

The scenario is clear enough. The Leafs have to gain ground on their competitors, if only marginally, during a hellish period of the schedule.

If Kessel’s shootout goal and move to centre kick-starts his offence, the last change enjoyed by home teams will have limited effect. Likewise, Tyler Bozak looked more comfortable farther down the pecking order. Carl Gunnarsson’s game has rounded nicely into form and Luke Schenn’s play, despite a few blips, is the best among the club’s defencemen. Nazem Kadri looks better every night, even if he has yet to score in regulation.

It’s not that much to go on but it’s a start. Hockey teams are different from freight trains in one key way. A few things, a save, a shot off the post, a game opening goal that bounces off an opposition shin pad, can change the track underfoot and everything ahead.
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