This could possibly be the biggest weekend of the year in Leafs Nation. The pressure is mounting, expectations are growing and the blue and white have their biggest test of the season ahead of them: Back to back road games against divisional rivals, while missing their captain and their #1 goaltender.
With JS Giguere nursing a sore groin, Jonas Gustavsson is expected to get both starts against the Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators. Fortunately the Leafs have had three days off since their 4-1 win Monday at home over the Dallas Stars, so they don’t feel playing Gustavsson in back to back road games will be an issue. Gustavsson has a 2-1-0 record, allowing just 4 goals on his last 91 shots in relief of Giguere.
The Leafs have been awful on the road so far this season, going just 2-5-1, and haven’t won away from the Air Canada Center since October 15th at Madison Square Garden. The Leafs have also been historically awful at the HSBC Arena, home of the Sabres, where they will face a returning Ryan Miller tonight.
These are crucial games for the Leafs for many reasons, as they are chasing both teams in the race up the standings and back to back wins here would put them right into playoff contention. With the American Thanksgiving yesterday, it also means that teams are officially open for business, and Brian Burke’s self imposed holiday trading deadline of December 9th means he has just a two week window to decide if a move needs to be made.
Should the Leafs falter here and slip further back in the standings, it could force Burke’s hand sooner than desired, as I’m sure he would love to wait until players like Dion Phaneuf and Colby Armstrong return to the lineup before making any moves. While it’s too soon to tell what the team has in recent call ups Nazem Kadri and Keith Aulie, Burke could be pressured into using them full-time and trading away other assets to make the adjustments he needs.
These are also valuable road points, as Wilson himself has said that most playoff teams will win most of their home games while playing at least .500 hockey on the road. Heading into hostile territories in both Buffalo and Ottawa will be a real test of this team’s mental toughness and Wilson’s ability to line match when he doesn’t have the last change.
With wins in 3 of their last 4, having scored 12 goals in those 3 wins, and with Jonas Gustavsson riding a hot streak, the Leafs need to carry that momentum with them into Buffalo and get off to a good start. The Leafs match up well against both Ottawa and Buffalo, as they are weak defensive teams that can be exploited with Toronto’s speed. Toronto will have to play tight, disciplined hockey to effectively shut down the opposition forwards.
So this is it, any points left on the table this weekend by the Leafs will put a serious dent into any kind of playoff talk and will only further compel Leaf management into making the changes necessary to reverse this team’s fortunes. The Leafs 4 game winning streak to start the season as well as their recent success has stemmed the tide of their 8 game losing skid, but now is not the time to let the foot off the gas. Now is the time to nut up, or shut up.