John Iaboni has been covering the Maple Leafs and hockey for over 30 years. He now is the editor of Leafs Game Day, the official program of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
January 3, 2006
(TORONTO) - The Toronto Maple Leafs are staring at the hump month of their schedule. It's intriguing. It's daunting. It will provide a clearer picture of just where the Leafs of 2005-06 are headed.
Of their next 12 games - starting on January 6 at Calgary and ending 25 days later at Tampa Bay - nine are on the road. On top of that, they'll launch February in Washington!
They'll be all over the map: Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver before returning home to face Phoenix; Colorado, Minnesota and a doubleheader in Ottawa prior to playing at Air Canada Centre against Buffalo and Montreal; then off to Florida and Tampa.
Riding a six-game winning streak sets them off on this odyssey brimming with confidence. They've prevailed despite keeping their medical staff busy and they've dug themselves out of the gaping hole they created when they lost at home to San Jose, Los Angeles and Dallas in their first three home dates of December.
Since then, they've reeled off six consecutive wins at home, lifting their season record at Air Canada Centre to 15-7-1. And, after dropping away games to Ottawa and Boston, the Leafs have won their past two road games in Pittsburgh and New Jersey.
But this is January...and the Leafs realize its enormous importance in setting the scene for what will come in Olympic-shortened February, March, April...and beyond.
"This is a huge month for us and it's going to be a big test," said Alex Steen whose spark was evident against Pittsburgh on January 2 when he returned after missing seven games with a dislocated thumb. "During this year we've had intense periods and times where we've played really well, especially on the road. I'm not worried at all. This team has such great character that we're going to battle through that and get a lot of wins."
Leafs Nation is hoping Steen is correct in that gut feeling. Considering that the Leafs have, in short order, climbed from hovering around the eighth spot in the conference to pulling even at fifth with the Rangers, continued winning performances are the only way they can ever hope to push for one of the top four seeds by season's end.
"To me, if we're really going to make any sort of a run - and I'm not looking at the teams behind us because some of them are starting to play pretty well - it is critical for us to put a pretty good record together right now," said Leafs head coach Pat Quinn when probed about the task at hand.
"It's important not only to have the good record (through January) but also for the formation of our team because we have to start directing ourselves towards being a team that can challenge and play with the better teams. We're not there yet. So that's the real challenge for me. We have to do it on the road. That could be good or it could be bad, I don't know. But we have some things to answer about how we're playing and hopefully we'll continue on the trend we are right now."
The recent results have been positive for the Leafs because of numerous developments. Since surrendering 18 goals over a three-game/two-loss slate against the Senators, Islanders and Bruins, the Leafs yielded only 11 goals while scoring 19 in the six-game winning streak.
Five of their victories have come by one goal. Two have been won in overtime. One has been decided in a shootout.
Those are clear indicators they're not panicking. They're learning to bear down, to pick up their defensive play and allowing goalies Ed Belfour and Mikael Tellqvist to concentrate on their duties. Leadership has been a factor, with captain Mats Sundin much closer to hitting his stride.
"We're a lunch-bucket sort of group," said a very banged-up Darcy Tucker. "With the injuries that we've had, we've just worked hard every night. We're just a very hungry group."
There simply isn't any room for a let up now.