They have a combined record of 120-53-20 this season, or slightly better than a 110-point pace over an 82-game season.
Three contenders, all in the same state, all ranked in the NHL’s top eight and all lined up in a row for the Toronto Maple Leafs to face in California in a three-game, four-night stretch starting Monday.
For whatever reason, the trio of the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings have become hockey’s version of murderers’ row in recent years, the road trip that wins forgot for Eastern Conference teams that pass through once a season.
This year, the California teams have a 51-19-11 record against the other conference (114-point pace) and a 27-10-5 record against the Leafs’ Atlantic Division (115-point pace) in yet another sign of the huge divide between the two sides of the league. (All stats before Sunday’s Kings game).
And all three will have two days of rest before facing visiting Toronto.
“It’s going to be a difficult trip,” Leafs alternate captain Joffrey Lupul said. “Not to say that we can’t win these games and compete.”
At the start of the season, this portion of the Leafs schedule looked like where playoff dreams might go to die, a difficult five-game road swing beginning in California and ending in Detroit against what looked to be five playoff-bound teams.
Some fans even branded the month “Death March” back in the fall.
But in winning their past two games over the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers in overtime, the Leafs have strung together a remarkable 13-3-3 stretch that has put them in plum position with a month to go.
At worst, they likely now need to win only eight of their final 17 games – which would be good for at least 92 points – to make the postseason.
How the Leafs have picked up points hasn’t always been pretty, with more third period leads frittered away than any other NHL team (21). But they’ve won a lot of those games, displaying a dangerous attack in scoring 3.47 goals a game over that two-month hot streak.
Even so, there are few shared characteristics of the three California teams that should make life particularly tough for Toronto over the next three games.
All three have good goaltending, with starters Jonas Hiller, Antti Niemi and Jonathan Quick putting their teams in the top 10 in save percentage at .915 or better this season.
All three also do a good job of hanging onto the puck, even though they play different styles. The Sharks outshoot their opposition more than any other team in the NHL, while the Kings rank third and the Ducks seventh.
That’s a stat that has been the Leafs’ weak point under coach Randy Carlyle the past two years, and despite their recent run, they still rank 29th in shot ratio at just 43.6 per cent.
Toronto’s scorers, in other words, will likely have to do a lot with few touches of the puck in California, relying on the kind of opportunistic goals they’ve picked up regularly in recent games.
As tough as the trip will be, however, the fact that the Leafs have banked so many points of late means they can afford to give a few back here, especially to teams from the West.
They’re entering the last big road swing of their season, needing to only pull two points out of three games in California to stay in solid playoff position, which is a fine spot for a team most expected to be on the bubble all year.
“It’s a good measuring stick for us,” said Lupul, who was drafted by the Ducks and played 205 games there between 2003 and 2011. “We’re going to play some real tough teams, and they play really well defensively. We’ve got to be ready for it.”
*– strength of schedule (as per Jeff Sagarin)
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