The Toronto Maple Leafs managed to dig themselves out of a massive hole by winning their last four games in impressive fashion and have fought their way back atop the Eastern Conference’s playoff wild card scenario. They now travel to the Arizona desert to face a Phoenix Coyotes team that needs every point they can get to stay afloat in the Western Conference’s fierce battle for a wild card birth.
The Leafs, along with every other team in the NHL‘s Eastern Conference, know all too well that the Western Conference is a completely different animal. The Leafs can’t afford to let their guard down against a more than solid Coyotes club, a team that if were in the East, probably wouldn’t be on the outskirts of the playoffs at this point in the season. Tonight’s game against the desert dogs is a big one for the Leafs, as a win would set them up nicely for the rest of their four-game west coast stint that also includes games against the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets.
In order to stay in hot pursuit of a top three spot in the Atlantic Division, the Leafs will be looking for Phil Kessel to prolong his current five-game point streak. The sniper and soon to be Olympian has managed to rack up 10 points in his last five games. Ever since the return of line mate Tyler Bozak, Kessel, along with James van Riemsdyk, have proved to be two of the game’s most productive forwards. Bozak has proven to be one of the league’s premier playmakers when he is healthy and continues to make Kessel and van Riemsdyk constant offensive threats, who other teams find hard to handle on a nightly basis.
As for the Coyotes, they have some potent players in their offensive game as well, with the likes of Radim Vrbata and Martin Hanzal. Both have struggled over the past five games as they have only managed to put up seven points between the two of them, but they do have the ability to break out at any given time. Mike Smith will most likely be between the pipes for the Coyotes, and he too has been struggling as of late ever since he was named to the Canadian Olympic Hockey Team. This is obviously a huge honor for the seven-season veteran, but the big news has clearly served as a distraction as he has given up a total of nine goals in his last four games, including five against a weaker Jets team.
The Leafs have proven over the past week that they can hang with the big boys of the Eastern Conference with wins against the Boston Bruins and most recently the Montreal Canadiens. A convincing win against the Coyotes to start off their trip to the West coast would set them up nicely and perhaps put them in position to gain points on the six teams that are currently battling for a playoff birth via wild card in the East.