GLENDALE, Ariz. – In the emotional moments after Saturday’s 5-3 victory over the rival Montreal Canadiens, Nazem Kadri pronounced it a “statement game” for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
With all due respect, the real statement could be made this week.
A four-game road trip that kicks off Monday night against the Phoenix Coyotes will see the Leafs travel 8,398 kilometres over seven days while facing four Western Conference teams. Even though Toronto has fared respectively against the NHL’s stronger conference this season – it was 9-7-1 heading into Monday’s game – it won’t be an easy stretch.
The Leafs are feeling good after reeling off four straight wins that have helped quiet some of the criticism around the team. However, they still sit in a wild-card position in the Eastern Conference and won’t have very much margin for error over the remaining 32 games on the schedule.
“They’re just a team, like a lot of teams, that are pushing hard to make the playoffs,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said before Monday’s game. “They’re competing hard and playing fast and finding a way to get wins. That’s kind of the same boat we’re in.”
The Leafs will face a Phoenix team that had been struggling prior to winning its last two games. Toronto didn’t hold a morning skate after making the trip west so it wasn’t clear who would get the start in goal or if there would be any lineup changes.
Jonathan Bernier is 2-0-0 in his career against the Coyotes with a .975 save percentage while James Reimer is 1-1-0 with a .909. Bernier has started 10 of the last 12 games for Toronto.
Mike Smith was expected to start for the Coyotes.
The road hasn’t been a very kind to the Leafs this season. They are just 8-10-4 overall away from Air Canada Centre and had gone 14 road games without a regulation victory until beating the Boston Bruins at TD Garden last Tuesday.
So while Kadri and his teammates were understandably excited after pulling off a victory over the Habs on the weekend, the real work is still to be done. A productive road trip this week would leave them in position to enter the Olympic break with a playoff spot in their grasp while a poor one could have them behind the eight-ball once again.
The Leafs have never won at Jobing.com Arena – although they’ve only made three visits since it opened in December 2003 … Radim Vrbata leads Phoenix with 35 points while Martin Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker are tops with 14 goals … Coyotes goalie Mike Smith is second in the NHL with 41 appearances so far – one behind San Jose’s Antti Niemi … Phil Kessel is on a five-game points streak, compiling three goals and 10 points over that stretch … The Coyotes have allowed 141 goals through 48 games, which is 10 more than they gave up in last year’s lockout-shortened campaign … The Leafs are 18-6-3 when scoring first and 18-1-2 when leading after two periods … Both teams struggle on the penalty kill: Phoenix is ranked 26th (78.7 percent) while Toronto is 27th (77.3 percent) … The Coyotes are 100-51-20 at home since current coach Dave Tippett took over … Phil Kessel’s cousin is David Moss of the Coyotes. Moss’s teams are 5-1-1 when they face one another in the NHL … Up next for Phoenix is a three-game road trip through Western Canada with visits to Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. The Leafs play in Denver on Tuesday night and visit Dallas and Winnipeg later in the week.
“You’re always worried about risk to your players, but there’s another way to look at it: When players go over there and play against the top players in the world, they get an unbelievable confidence about their game. They might come back much better.” – Coyotes coach Dave Tippett on having five of his players go to the Olympics.
“They have so much speed up front with guys that go to the net hard. They’ve got that first line that’s playing really well for them, they’ve got a good blueline and their goaltending’s been solid. When you put all of that together you’re going to have more success.” – Coyotes captain Shane Doan on the Leafs.