The Maple Leafs may be one of the NHL's younger teams, but as the final third of the 2016-17 regular season kicks off this week for them, they're fully aware games will only get tougher and the stakes will only get higher the rest of the way.
It isn't just that Toronto's schedule will continue to be a challenge - the Leafs have a pair of back-to-back games this week, and both involve one game at Air Canada Centre, and the next night on the road - but also, it's that virtually every one of their opponents is either jockeying for a top playoff seeding, or just trying desperately to qualify for the post-season. There are no gimmes, no soft touches, no games they can take a period off. For their final 28 games (15 at home, and 13 away from the ACC), the Buds will need to have all hands on deck and their collective foot fully pressed down on the pedal.
"That's what happens this time of year - teams come in after the all-star break with an extra push because they know that this is crunch time," defenceman Morgan Rielly said Monday after Toronto's practice. "There's lots of teams in the mix trying to get into a playoff spot. We've got to be one of those teams able to dial it up an extra notch."
"It's getting to the point of desperation, especially (with) teams that have an eye for the playoffs and still got a little bit of work to do," added centre Nazem Kadri. "Whether you're in or not, you're going to see teams' best hockey, and we've got to be ready for that."
The Leafs haven't played their best hockey since the league's all-star break in late January, claiming only six of a possible 14 points in seven games. They do have four points (a regulation win and two overtime losses) in their past four games, but in a competitive Eastern Conference that has only five points separating the second wild card slot Toronto currently occupies from 14th place, that type of pace won't keep them in the hunt.
But that's not to say they're spiralling out of control, either, as their most recent games - a 3-1 loss to Buffalo Saturday and a 2-1 overtime loss to St. Louis Thursday - included some energized and focused stretches from the Blue & White.
"Our team didn't get off to a good start (against the Sabres), we looked lethargic, they won all the battles and were better than us," Babcock said. "What happens between our meetings an hour and half before the game and when the game starts that we're not jumping? We have to get that looked after. That's been an area of our strength and suddenly it's not as good for us.
"(But) sometimes you start really good and the other teams scores first anyway. I thought we played great against St. Louis (last Thursday) right at the start. They scored and they took over totally, but that first five or six minutes, we were on it. That doesn't guarantee you'll have success and score first, but it sure give you a chance."
Toronto's next opponents are the New York Islanders, who come to the ACC Tuesday. The Isles came from behind late to beat the Leafs 6-5 in overtime Feb. 6, and since changing head coaches, they're one of the league's more energized squads. The Buds will need to match their energy from the opening buzzer if they're to get back on the winning side of things.
"I never ever thought they weren't a good team," Babcock said of the Islanders. "I don't think anyone really thought that. They have an elite, elite centre in John Tavares, and they have good players, and now they seem to have got excited and got it going. They're 6-2-2 in their last 10, and we had a good game against them last time we played them, (but) they found a way to win the game. We've got to find a way to win at home."
After the Isles game, the Leafs head to Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets Wednesday, then return to Toronto for a showdown with Ottawa Saturday before ending the weekend with a tilt in Carolina Sunday. This particularly challenging portion of the calendar will mean they've got to pay attention to the small things on and off the ice in order to be at their best.
"It's mostly just an attention to detail thing," winger James van Riemsdyk said of the challenges of playing late in the season. "You don't get as many free chances, teams are playing a lot tighter with the puck and smarter. It may even be more conservative in a way, so you just adapt and adjust to that."
"This time of year, you have to live right," added Rielly. "You have to make sure you're eating right and you're getting your rest. And when we have these back-to-backs and this busy schedule, it's just more important and we know that."