Road-weary Maple Leafs ready for more home games in second half

Tampa Bay Lightning's Jon Cooper says that he enjoys playing against Mike Babcock's teams, pointing to the Toronto Maple Leafs as a challenge for his first place club.

TORONTO – No team in the National Hockey League has played fewer games at home than the Toronto Maple Leafs, a fact of which Maureen Babcock is keenly aware.

She’s about to see plenty more of her husband in January, as the Leafs ring in 2018 with a season-long six-game homestand and their most travel-light month of the season.

“My wife gets tired of me being around the house too much,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock cracks. “You’d like the home games and the road games to be balanced, but that’s just not the way it is. We’re gonna have to do a good job at home.”

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That challenge begins Tuesday, as the Leafs host the division-rival Tampa Bay Lightning, a measuring-stick game against the Presidents’ Trophy front-runners and a relentless road squad. The high-flying Bolts — one of the few outfits who could outscore Toronto in river hockey — are a sparkling 12-5-1 away from Amalie Arena.

Toward the end of 2017, Babcock took a few public jabs at his club’s unfavourable first-half itinerary that saw 58.5 per cent of the Leafs’ away games already banked.

The coach wondered aloud why the Leafs had to play a back-to-back in Minnesota and Detroit on Dec. 14-15 and take Saturday, Dec. 16 off (Ottawa-Montreal was given the national spotlight that evening for the NHL 100 Classic). He pointed out the Leafs’ eight-game, seven-city, 15-day slog in mid-December as uniquely arduous.

And costly. December road games brought injuries to top centres Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri, top-four defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, and backup goalie Curtis McElhinney.

Despite playing a league-high 60 per cent of their games on the road, the Leafs have survived with a .500 record away from the ACC (12-10-2).

All but Zaitsev are back in action as the Leafs look at January as an chance to keep pace with Boston if not gain ground on Tampa in the Atlantic race.

Toronto, 11-5 at the ACC, has played four fewer home games than Tampa and five fewer home games than Boston.

January is schedule-correction time for the Buds. Home games outnumber roadies nine to four, and the weary Leafs should benefit from both a bye week (Jan. 11-15) and an all-star break (Jan. 26-30). There’s just one back-to-back (Jan. 24-25 in Chicago and Dallas) until February.

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“The last month has been pretty gruelling for us and tough, to say the least,” says Kadri, who returns after sitting out the last two games with whiplash. “We got through it with a positive mindset, and now it’s time to cash in on some points.”

The frequent flyer mileage racked up by Toronto over the first 40 games of 2017-18 is unlike anything James van Riemsdyk has experienced in his nine-year career. But there is benefit in leaving the most taxing roadies — California, Arizona, Western Canada — in the rear view.

“Everything’s thrown a little off. You’re sleeping in a different bed in a different room every night,” van Riemsdyk says.

“It seems we’re 80 to 85 per cent done with all the travel for the year, at least mileage-wise. We’ve gotten all the long ones out of the way. It’s interesting in that respect. That gives us a chance down the stretch to stay fresh now.”

JVR’s estimate isn’t far off.

The Leafs have already travelled 40,295 kilometres this season, with just 17,474 kilometres ahead. Roughly 70 per cent of their map-crossing is done.

Over the years, van Riemsdyk has picked up little tricks to combat with jet leg. He orders a humidifier up to his room in every hotel, for example.

The travel drain is all new to rookie Andreas Borgman, however. As a pro in Sweden, the defenceman never endured anything longer than a two-hour bus ride to play hockey. If the road city was farther than that, they’d take a one-hour flight.

“It’s a change for me, absolutely,” says Borgman. He admits to losing track of what day it is, and keeping in touch with friends and family back in Stockholm can be an exercise in sleepy mathematics. “Is it midnight or 3 a.m.?”

Yes, despite the humidifiers and Old Maid bonding and catered meals and staffers advising optimal sleep schedules, even elite athletes are welcoming a month (mostly) at home.

“It’s nice after the game to go home and decompress and not have to worry about getting to the next place,” says van Riemsdyk.

“We travel very well and stay in nice hotels, but there’s nothing quite like sleeping in your own bed.”