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Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson makes a save during the first period of their NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Florida on Friday night. (DOUG MURRAY/DOUG MURRAY/REUTERS)
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson makes a save during the first period of their NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Florida on Friday night. (DOUG MURRAY/DOUG MURRAY/REUTERS)

Leafs facing schedule crunch Add to ...

Already mired near the league basement with only 17 wins in 53 games this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs will not be getting any relief from their schedule in the two weeks leading up to the Olympic break.

The Leafs' next seven games come against teams in playoff position and with 60 or more points, a stretch that includes five games versus teams - New Jersey, Vancouver and San Jose - currently ranked among the top eight in the league.

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Essentially out of playoff contention with 35 per cent of the season to go, Toronto begins its tough run Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Kings - an up-and-coming team that currently sits tied for sixth place in the Western Conference.

Leafs coach Ron Wilson, however, said he was unconcerned about his team's upcoming opponents.

"We don't fear playing anybody," Wilson said. "Every game's difficult. I think [our record against top teams]shows how even the league is and we'll put our best foot forward.

"We're determined to get every point we can possibly get."

Wilson knows the Kings franchise well having coached division rivals for long stretches in Anaheim and San Jose, and said the plan Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi put in place years earlier is finally bearing fruit.

"He knows how to build teams," Wilson said. "You start and you build through the draft and you develop players in the off-season. He set the model for the Sharks [as GM from 1996 to 2003]and he's obviously done the same thing with the Kings.

"They've drafted well, they've picked up some good young players, too - like a Jack Johnson - in trades, and they've remained patient. They're in an environment where you can be probably a little more patient than you can here."

Given how long the Kings have been in the wilderness, patience has been something a few players have had to get used to. Team captain Dustin Brown, for example, has played 400 games in his career and yet to skate in the playoffs - something Los Angeles last did in 2002 with a first line made up of three stars (Jason Allison, Adam Deadmarsh and Ziggy Palffy) who are all out of the league.

The Kings' latest sniper, Anze Kopitar, said that after so many years rebuilding, there was a lot of anticipation heading into this season - from both those in the dressing room and everywhere else.

"It's one of those years when everyone was talking about it being a breakthrough year for us, so there was a little more pressure put on us," said Kopitar, who leads the Kings with 20 goals and 50 points in 51 games.

"We knew it. Three years [without playing in the playoffs]was enough for me. It was a little, I'm not going to say boring, but I mean when you're out of contention for the playoffs by the end of January, it is kind of boring for the older guys that were on the team.

"I think we've matured a lot. I think we've grown as a team."

Starting in goal Tuesday night will be Jonas Gustavsson for the Leafs and Jonathan Quick for the Kings, two young netminders expected to fill depth roles for their countries (Sweden and the U.S.) at the Olympics.

Toronto is 5-12-3 in its last 20 games, while Los Angeles has cooled off a little of late (8-9-0) after a 21-10-3 start to the season.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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