The easy part is likely over.
Despite some obvious bumps in the road, the Toronto Maple Leafs are 14-9-1 and sitting in solid playoff position, taking advantage of a relatively easy schedule through the first 24 games of the 2013-14 NHL season.
What happens over their next three weeks, however, could ultimately end up defining their season, as Wednesday’s road game in Pittsburgh begins a difficult run of games against some of the league’s best teams.
According to Jeff Sagarin, a well-regarded statistician who publishes power rankings for most North American professional sports at USA Today, the Leafs have, so far, had the second-easiest schedule in the league.
By Sagarin’s numbers, they have played the NHL’s top-10 teams just six times, and the top-16 teams only nine times.
But that will quickly change. Starting Wednesday, the Leafs will play good teams almost every night for 11 games in a row, including powerhouses such as the Pittsburgh Penguins (twice), San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.
In all, it means facing top-10 teams in Sagarin’s list eight times in the next 20 days.
The timing for this part of the Leafs schedule – which will also coincide with HBO beginning to film its invasive 24/7 documentary series – isn’t ideal. Toronto has won only two games in regulation in its last 10 (4-5-1) and is coming off a 6-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets last Monday that had fans booing them off the Air Canada Centre ice.
They have struggled to score goals, been shorthanded nearly four times a night, and had their overworked penalty kill fall to 18th after it helped win many games last season.
They haven’t played well – and they are the first to say so.
“We haven’t been happy with our game for most of the season,” Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said. “I think we all know we can play better. We can step it up from where we’ve been. Last [Monday] night, I don’t know if it was just mental, but the whole team kind of collapsed.”
“Our goaltending and our special teams were winning us hockey games when the shot clock was lopsided,” Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle said of his team’s play this year.
“We weren’t creating enough and were being hemmed in. That to me is a sign that we’ve got to change some of the things that we’re doing out there. [Monday] might have been a culmination of the grand scheme of things. It was a pretty ugly game.”
What the Leafs can’t afford to do is have a string of similar outings.
While they still have the 12th-best record in the league and are comfortably in the top five in their division despite a tough November, a few losses in a row would likely be enough for teams in the struggling Metropolitan Division to catch up.
But if they can hang on through the next 11 games, it’ll set them up for a much easier second half.
Carlyle juggled his defence pairings at practice Tuesday, reuniting Mark Fraser with Cody Franson – a successful duo last season – and experimenting with youngsters (and roommates) Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly together for the first time.
The Leafs will also have to have a new look up front once again, as winger Joffrey Lupul will miss considerable time with a groin injury suffered against Columbus.
Carlyle, however, was careful not to lean on the injury crutch, saying: “We have to get some players playing better.”
“There’s lots of reasons,” he said of his team’s poor play. “I look at them and I say they’re excuses. We’re not about excuses.”
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