Babcock banking on red-hot Blues bringing best out of Maple Leafs

Former Maple Leaf Tyler Bozak says Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews are 'mature beyond their years' and he's happy he only has to play his former teammates twice a year.

ST. LOUIS — They have gone from Montreal to Manhattan to Denver to Las Vegas to suburban Phoenix and now the finish line is in sight.

The only problem for the Toronto Maple Leafs is they’ll be facing the NHL’s hottest team before making the turn for home after a six-game, 12-day odyssey.

"I think if we win here tonight it’s a great trip," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "That’s what we’re going to try and do."

They should have Andreas Johnsson back in the lineup on Tuesday, assuming he gets through warmups at Enterprise Center without issue. They will need all hands on deck for a St. Louis Blues team attempting to establish a new franchise record with its 11th straight win.

"I think it’s so important for our team to play in this game, to be involved in it," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "You know it’s the time of year you’ve got to get to the next level, you have to have swagger and know you can win these games. We’re excited to play them. It should be a lot of fun, there won’t be a lot of space."

The Blues have reeled off three straight shutouts, going 187 minutes 16 seconds without allowing a goal. They’ve rocketed up the standings since the calendar flipped to 2019 with rookie goalie Jordan Binnington going 12-1-1.

Vladimir Tarasenko has also come alive, putting together a 12-game point streak where he’s scored 11 goals and added 11 assists.

Basically, there was no shortage of players for Babcock to identify as threats in preparation for puck drop. He also showed the Leafs some clips of Saturday’s limp 2-0 loss against the Coyotes — a game where they appeared to be skating in sand and only managed 21 shots.

"We’ve got to do a better job of breaking the puck out and playing off the cycle," said Rielly. "When you look at the game that we played in Phoenix I don’t think we had a whole lot of speed and I don’t think we had a whole lot of zone time."

Johnsson missed that game after taking a knee to his left thigh from Golden Knights defenceman Brayden McNabb last week. He could provide an extra jolt to the forward group, likely replacing Tyler Ennis on the fourth line to start.

In the big picture, the Leafs have felt encouraged about their game since the all-star break. They are 7-2-1 in the last 10 and have seen a spike in their scoring chance and possession metrics during that stretch.

The power play is working again, too.

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That only underscores how much has been working for the Blues, who were 10-14-4 at one point in December but now sit third in the Central Division.

"Yeah, it’s crazy," said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri. "You obviously need to be feeling it. I think in that span you probably get a little bit of luck as well and, you know, the Hockey Gods are on your side at that point.

"It feels good to go through a stretch like that and you feel pretty invincible, but we’ve got to come in here understanding we can win and having the confidence to do so."

The longest road trip of the Leafs season stands at 3-2-0 so far, with the game in Arizona the only poor effort.

This is a tough time of year for most teams. Not only is next week’s trade deadline looming, but the grind is real. Babcock was banking on having a quality opponent at the end of a long road trip bring out the best in his team.

"I like what we have because they’re 15-4-1 or something, they’re the best team in the National Hockey League since Jan. 3. It’s well-documented," he said. "You know you’re coming into a game with a good opportunity to play a good team and we’re excited to be doing that."

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