TORONTO (CP) - Paul Maurice gave his players the day off Thursday, and it was a much-deserved break.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have won three in a row and six of their last eight, and the head coach couldn't ask for more than that. They were able, even with all their injuries, to avoid a January swoon similar to the one they went into last year when eight consecutive defeats cost them a shot at making the playoffs.
But that was Pat Quinn's team, not Maurice's team.
This one is different. It is playing better defence, and days off after big wins like the 2-1 triumph over the Rangers in New York on Wednesday have helped keep the spirits up and the legs fresh.
Andrew Raycroft has allowed only a goal a game during the current winning streak, and diligent checking and a strong work ethic have kept the Leafs in contention.
A stiff challenge lies ahead Saturday night, however, when Toronto plays in Ottawa. The Senators have won eight of their last 10 and they are 11-2-0 against the Leafs since the start of the 2005-2006 season.
Toronto was in ninth place but only six points behind fourth-place Ottawa in the tight Eastern Conference on Thursday.
Betting sites currently list the Leafs at or about 75 to 1 to win the Stanley Cup. PinnacleSports.com, for instance, considers Buffalo (5-1), Anaheim (11-2), San Jose (8-1), Nashville (9-1) and Ottawa and Detroit (12-1) to have the best chances of going all the way. There are 18 clubs rated ahead of Toronto.
Lest we forget, nobody gave the Lightning much of a chance of hoisting the hardware in 2005 or considered Carolina a good bet to be sipping champagne from the silver trophy in 2006.
The Leafs are overcoming the continued absences of injured forwards Mike Peca, Darcy Tucker and Kyle Wellwood to stay in contention. Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov have excelled since returning from injuries. Ponikarovsky has a team-best, plus-minus rating of plus-9 and Antropov and big defenceman Hal Gill are next at plus-7.
The road ahead is difficult. Maurice predicted his team would be in a dogfight for a playoff berth to the final weekend, and that is exactly what is happening.
After Ottawa, the Leafs go into St. Louis to play the resurgent Blues on Tuesday, face the No. 1 Predators in Nashville on Thursday and return home to take on Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins next Saturday.
If they can keep their heads above water during that stretch, they'll be in good shape. They stand to gain ground when five of the following six games pit them against teams below them in the standings, including two with lowly Philadelphia and two with the Islanders.
Their fate might be decided at home.
The Leafs have a 14-9-3 road record but are only 11-12-3 in Air Canada Centre. To make the playoffs, they'll have to take at least 20 points out their 15 remaining home dates.