Toronto Maple Leafs: Tough Five-Game Set Crucial Before All Star Break

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IJanuary 16, 2011

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 13:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs walks off the ice following warm ups to the NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Arena on January 13, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With less than two weeks remaining until the All Star break kicks in, most of the Toronto Maple Leaf players will be looking forward to a few days off away from the ice. The team's lone All Star in Phil Kessel, on the other hand, will be forced to play a meaningless game with the league's best, instead of taking some time to rest his body from the rigors of an NHL season. 

But before anyone on the team can think of family time, or the weekend festivities in Carolina on Jan. 28 and 29, they have a tough five-game platter on the horizon that could prove crucial to where they end up at the end of the 2010-11 campaign. 

The Leafs have been hot of late, with an impressive 5-2-1 record since bringing in the New Year, and must continue the trend if they plan on even coming close to the playoffs being a possibility this season. 

After a lack-luster shootout loss to the Calgary Flames on Saturday night, the club sits in 12th in the Eastern Conference with 41 points, ten points behind the eighth-place Atlanta Thrashers (but with three games in hand on the stumbling Thrash). 

Right now, the important thing is not that eighth spot though, it's the three teams directly in front of them in Buffalo, Florida and Carolina. The Sabres are two points ahead (43) while the Panthers sit three points ahead (44). The Hurricanes are a bit further off comfortably in ninth place with 50 points, nine in front of the Leafs.

Those are the teams the Leafs must catch before anything else can be talked about, and January's final five games for the club give the team a chance at doing just that, though it will be no easy task. 

After a three-day lay-off, the Leafs will first head to New York to face the Rangers on Wednesday. The short break comes at the perfect time for a club that looked weary after their West-coast road trip. 

After the Rangers, the Leafs will be home for two games against the Anaheim Ducks and Washington Capitals. They'll finish the month off with back-to-back games against the Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning on the road. 

Did I mention the five games come in a seven-day span? That's right, the Leafs will travel from New York to Toronto to Carolina to Tampa Bay in a week, while playing on five of the seven days. 

Talk about having no time to think about your last game. 

What makes the stretch tougher is that all the teams are ahead of them in the standings, though there's not even five teams below them in the NHL, so that's not saying much.

And if all that wasn't enough working against the Leafs, there's more - there's always more with the Leafs - as each of the upcoming opponents are surging at the moment. 

The Rangers are 6-3-1 in their last ten, and quickly rising in the East standings (currently tied for 5th). Anaheim is in the midst of a tightly contested playoff-spot battle in the West, currently sitting 8th, and 6-4-0 in their past ten games. 

Washington and Carolina, though both struggling at times this season, look to be regaining their swagger, and Tampa currently sits second in the East with 57 points-with a suddenly-hot-again Steven Stamkos. 

Yes, the circumstances and opponents all look as if they're working against the Leafs as they head towards the All Star break, but it also gives them an outstanding opportunity to, if nothing else, gain a significant amount of confidence as they press on towards the final stretch of the season.

Coming out of the next five games with a winning record won't guarantee them anything, but enter the All Star break having lost more than two of them and they'll probably be too far out of reach of the pack.

Winning extends their chances. Losing might be the final straw. 

The Leafs are actually somewhat apart of the race at the moment, as they find themselves gaining on those ahead and separating from those behind for the first time in a long time. The next five games are crucial, if only because it's ten points up for grabs in a tightly-packed week of hockey. 

The Leafs have looked impressive to start 2011, and with a three-day break before they run headlong into this tough schedule, they should remind themselves of how important of a stretch it could turn out to be.

And they might as well give everything they've got to put another winning streak together in the upcoming games, because there's a nice six-day break waiting for them on the other side. Time for each player to step away and spend some quality time recovering from various bumps and bruises. 

No hockey, no media, no fans. Just pure relaxation. 

Well, for every player except Kessel, that is. 


Twitter: @therealjonneely


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