ANAHEIM – It will be their longest and most arduous road trip of the season.
Five games in 10 days for the Toronto Maple Leafs with stops in some of the NHL's most unforgiving terrain. There's the impending swing through the treacherous California triangle followed by clashes with playoff chasers in Washington and Detroit.
Just a hair up on the Lightning for third spot in the Atlantic division, points will be harder to come by in the days ahead for a Toronto squad that's lost just three times in regulation in the past 19 games.
“It's a good measuring stick for us,” said Joffrey Lupul, securing his team's 13th win since Jan. 12 with the overtime winner against Philadelphia over the weekend.
Two times a Duck himself, Lupul and the Leafs will start their grueling sprint through the California triangle with a Monday date in Anaheim. Almost unbeatable at home – they went 22 games before losing their first game in regulation at the Honda Center – only the Blues have been better this season than the league-best Ducks, who square off with Randy Carlyle, their former bench boss, for the first time since his dismissal in Dec. 2011.
From SoCal to NorCal, the Leafs get right back at it a day later in San Jose. Just a smidge behind the Ducks, Blackhawks and Blues for tops in the West, the Sharks – like the Ducks – are dominant at home. They've lost just four times in regulation at the SAP Center and are amongst the top defensive teams in the league this season.
Following that hearty challenge the Leafs will conclude their stay in Cali opposite a stingy Kings team that's won seven straight and gives up fewer goals than any other team. It'll be the first visit to Staples Center for Jonathan Bernier since he was dealt to Toronto last summer.
The Leafs have already faced each of these clubs once this season, managing a single victory over the Ducks at the ACC in late October. They lost to both the Sharks and Kings at home in December, currently 12-8-2 opposite Western opponents this year.
It was in December that they endured a similar three-game test; one that saw them dealt the Kings, Blues and Blackhawks in a four-day stretch. Beaten by L.A. and St. Louis on a hellacious back-to-back, the Leafs managed to stun the defending champions at home on a Saturday night.
They'll need to raise their game to a similar level to survive California's best.
“We've got to understand that there's a certain style of game that we have to play when we get out on the road,” said Carlyle. “We have to skate. We're a skating hockey club.”
Winners in 11 of 14 before the Olympic break, Toronto has been a different team in the days after. They've lacked the same zip and have fumbled away third period leads in four of the five games – twice against the Flyers – splitting the difference with a pair of wins and pair of losses in overtime.
Whether they get lost or not in the California triangle, the Leafs will continue their season-long road swing with a Sunday stop in D.C. against Alex Ovechkin before ending the trip once and for all at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday.
The Capitals and Wings sit just outside of a playoff spot currently, chasing the likes of Toronto for entry.
Though in good standing at the moment for their second straight postseason berth with 17 games to play the Leafs have an opportunity to assert their worth against some of the league's elite while pushing Montreal for second spot in the division.
“Five big games coming up here,” said Troy Bodie. “We need some points out there. There's not many left to be had.”