Trip key to Leafs' plans

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:31 AM ET

Every game tells a story.

But some tell more than others, and in a one-week stretch that starts tonight, the Maple Leafs are looking at four games that, put together, form a veritable encyclopedia.

All four are on the road, and that alone should provide some insights. If the Leafs manage to make the playoffs, it's highly unlikely they'll ever get the home-ice advantage, so it's important to see which players, if any, are less effective against good road competition than at home.

And every one of these games will provide playoff-type competition.

The Colorado Avalanche, while perhaps not the powerhouse of recent years, still provide formidable opposition. The Avs are streaking, having won seven in a row, and have a home record of 14-6-0-3.

Right after that game, the Leafs have to make the long flight to St. Paul for a game tomorrow against the Minnesota Wild, arguably the most disciplined team in the National Hockey League.

The Wild can be beaten -- although most of its visitors have failed to do so -- but it takes a concerted, intelligent effort.

From there, the Leafs head to Ottawa for a Saturday-Monday doubleheader against the Senators, who have beaten them four times in four tries and drubbed them soundly on the past two occasions.

At no point in the season does an NHL general manager ignore the machinations of his team. But on some occasions, he pays more attention than usual, and for Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr., this is one of those occasions.

In four games, his Leafs will face a variety of opposition, all of it dangerous.

It doesn't matter whether Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker and Eric Lindros are in the lineup. In the playoffs, there will be injuries. The team will have to overcome some setbacks. And what Ferguson wants to see, in a gruelling, short-handed week like this one, is who responds and who doesn't.

Even though the NHL only recently passed its midpoint, the trade window rapidly is closing, and as a result of the new collective bargaining agreement with its heavy economic overtones, deals are not as quickly made as they once were.

Ferguson's Leafs head into this stretch only four points ahead of the ninth-place Tampa Bay Lightning. Five points back are the Montreal Canadiens, revitalized by a coaching change and holding two games in hand on the Leafs.

If the Leafs were to sweep this trip, they would not only solidify their playoff status, they would put to rest a lot of the nagging doubts that their fans have expressed.

But if this trip is a disaster -- and given the calibre of the opposition, it certainly has that potential -- the Leafs could find themselves in a non-playoff position by the time it is over.

Ferguson has not made any trades this season. Some players have been shuffled up and down from the minors, and for the most part, have played well. As a result, they have given the Leafs a few cards to deal should they choose to do so.

If things go badly on this trip, Ferguson will have to make the fateful choice that is forced upon all general managers sooner or later. Does he stay the course with this team and perhaps miss the playoffs, but wait for the kids to develop for future seasons?

Or does he cash in some of the young talent that is personified in the likes of Kyle Wellwood, John Pohl, Alex Ponikarovsky, Alexander Steen and Matt Stajan?

If this trip is a success, he won't have to make that decision. But if it's a failure, he will. And it's not an easy decision to make.


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