TORONTO, Ontario - The Leafs won't restart their schedule until Thursday against the New York Islanders but for Randy Carlyle, the Olympic break is now nothing but a distant memory. As far as he's concerned, it's time to get back to business.
"We were playing at a pretty high level and now we're expecting to take the next step," said the Leafs head coach after the team's annual outdoor practice on Friday at Greenwood Park in front of several hundred fans. "We're going to have to play to a higher level to have success here in the last 22 games."
That message of aspiring to a higher level of play is one that Carlyle has continually preached throughout the season, whether the team was going through a rough stretch as they did in mid-December and early January or experiencing success as they did heading into the Olympic break.
Posting an 11-2-1 record in the fourteen games that preceded the break built the Leafs a seven-point cushion on the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals for the final playoff spot but with the Jackets holding two games in hand and the Senators and Capitals each holding one, that gap could shrink quickly if they trip up out of the gate.
"It was a time to recharge the batteries but for us it's about now getting our team ready for Thursday," said Carlyle. "That's the most important thing on our plate is to make sure our hockey club picks up where it left off."
Given how well the team played heading into the break, that won't be an easy task for several reasons. Firstly, a 14-game stretch that saw them win 11 times (78 per cent of their games) is likely an unsustainable pace. Seventeen wins in their final 22 games is a lot to ask. The key will be to make sure they don't experience too significant a drop off.
Secondly, the schedule won't be a cake walk. The Leafs will play 22 games in 45 nights, 13 of them on the road. 14 of those games will be against teams currently in playoff positions. The real test will come on a five-game road trip March 10-18 when they head out west to face the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings before making stops in Washington and Detroit. Additionally, Toronto will face four more sets of games on back-to-back nights.
Safe to say, the time for rest has come and gone.
"The Olympic break for us, we feel good coming back," said Dion Phaneuf. "We feel rested, we feel rejuvenated and I think it's beneficial for everyone to have that."
The positive aspect of the break is that with David Bolland nearing a return and so long as James Van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel get through the bronze medal game at the Olympics injury-free, the Leafs should be able to ice their optimal lineup for the first time this season. Believe it or not, due to suspensions and injuries, Bolland, Tyler Bozak, David Clarkson and Joffrey Lupul have yet to all be dressed in the same game.
van Riemsdyk - Bozak - Kessel
Lupul - Kadri - Clarkson
Raymond - Bolland - Kulemin
Ashton - McClement - Bodie
Extras: McLaren, Orr
Gunnarsson - Phaneuf
Gardiner - Franson
Gleason - Rielly
Goaltenders: Bernier and Reimer
"I expect the hockey down the stretch to be very good," predicted Phaneuf. "The pace is going to increase like it always does going down the stretch run but I think the break really helps us as players."