It's one thing to beat the Colorado Avalanche. Or the Minnesota Wild.
It's another to take on the Detroit Red Wings, which is the task facing the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena.
The Leafs are hoping to finish their road trip 3-0-0 to set up yet another must-win game Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres, the team holding down the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Lose to Detroit, a team 17 points ahead of them in the standings, and Toronto's long-shot playoff bid takes a potentially fatal hit.
Win and the dream is still alive.
“It's a good challenge for us, to see if we can compete with them,” Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur said. “I've played here three or four times, and it's always a tough game. It seems like they're two or three steps quicker than everyone else. We'll have to be ready.”
“We've managed to get away with making some mistakes against a couple of teams that have been shaky recently,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “When you play the Red Wings, you make mistakes, they'll bury you.”
Motivation shouldn't be an issue for Detroit, either.
While the Red Wings may be comfortably near the top of the Western Conference with 95 points, they're far from comfortable with their recent play.
With several key players out with injury – including Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen – Detroit is reeling a little after losing its past three games. From the top down, there's a sense in the organization of not wanting to go into the postseason anything less than perfect, and even a 4-4-3 record in March is cause for concern.
“We haven't been nearly as consistent as I think we need to be,” general manager Ken Holland said. “We show flashes in stretches. But we're a better team than we were a month ago. We're getting closer to playing playoff hockey.
“We've got eight more games to go, obviously we need some wins to try to hang on to our division, to try to hold off San Jose for the second seed. Whether we do that or not, I think the most important thing is we continue to play playoff-style hockey to prepare us.
“We've got to figure out a way to make these 2-1 losses into 2-1 wins.”
Detroit's latest 2-1 loss – on Wednesday against the league-leading Vancouver Canucks – was evidence of that shift to playoff hockey: a tight-checking, goalie-dominated game that probably serves as a good preview of what Saturday's matchup will look like.
The Wings will again be short-handed, but even down a few weapons, they present one of the tougher challenges Toronto has faced during its 15-6-5 run since the all-star break.
Much of the reason the Leafs are where they are, meanwhile, is rookie netminder James Reimer, who has kept his team in almost every game despite the Leafs being outshot in all but five of their last 27 games.
That trend should continue against Detroit, which is second in the NHL this season with an average of 33.4 shots a game.
“They're a heckuva team, but they're pretty beatable,” Reimer said. “I don't think they have a perfect record this year. It's more of a challenge than intimidating, I think.”
The Leafs will also be hoping for some help from the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils this weekend. The Sabres play both teams back-to-back Friday and Saturday and could be within striking distance of the Leafs or out of reach by the time they meet next week.
“Of course we'll be watching,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. “You definitely know what's happening.”
“We almost need to win out,” MacArthur said of Toronto's final seven games. “The Buffalo game, it'd be nice to set it up for that, but at the same time, we need them to lose a few. There's a lot of stuff going on.
“We’ve got our hands full with Detroit here and I think we should just worry about that.”Report Typo/Error