Few would have seen this coming, even only two or three weeks ago.
But with the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins in town to face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, it's the home team that is making a charge up the standings.
While the Leafs are one of the hottest teams in the NHL with an 8-2-2 record since the all-star break, the Penguins have slumped considerably, winning only twice in their past nine (2-5-2).
With whispers around the league that Crosby may miss the rest of the season with concussion symptoms and teammate Evgeni Malkin out for the year with a knee injury, Penguins general manager Ray Shero has been adding bodies in an attempt to keep his team among the Stanley Cup contenders.
Pittsburgh will have three newcomers in the lineup Saturday - wingers James Neal and Alexei Kovalev and defenceman Matt Niskanen, who were all acquired in trades this week.
As Monday's 3 p.m. (EST) trade deadline approaches, Leafs GM Brian Burke, meanwhile, has already thrown three veterans overboard only to have his team continue to win.
Winger Joffrey Lupul said one of the first things he did when learning he was going to the Leafs as part of the François Beauchemin trade on Feb. 9 was check the standings. At that point, Toronto was on the fringe of the race, sitting in 12th in the Eastern Conference and eight points out of the final playoff spot.
Seven games later, after a 5-4 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, they had passed two teams and were four points behind the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes. (The 'Canes and Penguins played Friday night in Raleigh.)
"Now that we're closing the gap, you start getting that belief more and more everyday," Lupul said. "We play two games this weekend, and I've already heard guys saying around the [dressing]room, if we win two games, we could be, theoretically, sitting tied for a playoff spot on the day of the trade deadline.
"So that's quite a turnaround from where we were 14 or 18 days ago."
Indeed, that's a possibility, although the Leafs need some help.
Even if Lupul and Co. do their part and beat the Pens and Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, they'll need the Hurricanes to go pointless and the ninth-place Buffalo Sabres to lose at least once in their games on Friday and Saturday. (The Sabres played host to the Ottawa Senators on Friday.)
Even so, optimism is the theme among the Leafs players, who are now talking far less about who will get shipped out before the deadline than trying to stun the hockey world by coming from 14 points back a month ago.
"The whole group here is really excited to be in the race," winger Fredrik Sjostrom said. "We're not in a playoff spot yet, but we can feel it in our grasp. We feel we can get it."
Toronto head coach Ron Wilson said part of what his team needs to do is ignore the growing expectations being placed on it.
"I don't think there's an incredible amount of pressure on our guys," he said. "They're having fun right now and blocking all this baloney out."
Lupul added that the Leafs realize there's a quarter of the season to be played.
"You can't really worry too much about what other teams do quite yet," he said. "There's so many games left, that we've just got to worry about our game.
"The key is to not make it where it's a string of two or three losses and you put yourself right back to that eight points [away]mark where it's far tougher."
One constant throughout the recent run has been the play of rookie netminder James Reimer, who Wilson said will likely receive both starts this weekend. Reimer has a 10-4-2 record with a 2.24 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
Jean-Sébastien Giguère is expected to return from injury to serve as his backup.Report Typo/Error