TORONTO (CP) - Winning on home ice has been a problem for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, and it might prove to be their downfall.
Only one team in the NHL's Eastern Conference, last-place Philadelphia, has fewer home points than Toronto. The Leafs have 23 points in 25 home games, while they have 27 points in 24 road games.
If the Bay Street blahs don't disappear, the Leafs will finish below .500 at home for the first time since moving into Air Canada Centre in 1999. They were last below .500 at home in 1997-1998 in Maple Leaf Gardens.
"There's no real explanation for it," says forward Alex Steen. "Obviously, it's not a positive that we haven't been winning so much at home, but it's something we're trying to change."
A good time to change would be Saturday night when the Montreal Canadiens breeze into town. The Habs are nine points ahead of the Leafs in the Northeast, and closing the gap would go a long way towards putting Toronto back into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Toronto has six of a possible eight points against Montreal in the four previous meetings this season. Shootouts ended three of the games.
"We're built physically to play well against them," Leafs coach Paul Maurice said after practice Friday. "We've gone into Montreal with a little bit of anger and an edge. That's helped us.
"At the same time, we've let them back into games. Their goaltending has been spectacular in all but one of the games we've played and that sometimes can make you look like you're not playing well.
"We've worked hard against them. Maybe some of the guys who came back from last year heard enough over the course of six months about the weekend that did them in."
Two consecutive losses in Montreal in late March, 5-1 and 6-2 just 48 hours apart, killed any hope Toronto had of making the playoffs last spring.
The rivalry between two of the Original Six teams is as intense as ever.
"Hey, it's Montreal-Toronto, and when those teams get together, I think everybody is ready to play," said Maurice.
Leafs right-winger Jeff O'Neill will certainly be ready.
"We've played them pretty well this year," said O'Neill. "Our cycle has been good against them and we seem to have success against them when we have the down-low pressure on them so that's what we're going to try to do."
Montreal will have a distinct goaltending advantage if the stats mean anything.
Habs first-stringer Cristobel Huet has a 2.63 goals-against average and .923 save percentage, while Toronto's Andrew Raycroft has a 3.10 GAA and .892 save percentage.
So, Raycroft will have to be at his best for the Leafs to win this one. Toronto is coming off an 8-2 pounding in Pittsburgh last Saturday, but Raycroft has the mental toughness to realize it's not to his benefit to get down on himself after losses. He's been upbeat through thick and thin, and he's bounced back impressively from poor outings.
"I'm very hopeful that approach will help him and our team get through this next stretch of hockey," said Maurice.
Players such as Steen, O'Neill, AHL call-ups Kris Newbury, Boyd Devereaux and Ben Ondrus, and the recently-acquired Travis Green have helped offset the ongoing absence of injured forwards Mike Peca, Kyle Wellwood and Darcy Tucker.
"The key is to have a competitive edge every game, like you do in the playoffs," said Raycroft. "We're essentially in the playoffs now.
"If we bring that competitive edge every night, we'll win more than we lose, for sure."
Montreal also has an edge over Toronto in special teams play. The Habs are second in the league on power plays, and the Leafs are fifth. On penalty kills, the Habs are third and the Leafs are 28th - partly because, Maurice says, his centres are losing too many faceoffs in their own end during opposition manpower advantages.
Toronto plays five straight road games after this one, which might be a good thing considering that they've earned more points away than at home.
They'd love to beat Montreal first. Maybe the Air Canada Centre crowd will surprise them and become that sixth skater other teams employ.