Tough tests await Leafs

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:09 AM ET

NASHVILLE -- If today was Jan. 8 instead of Feb. 8, the condolence cards already would be in the mail for the Maple Leafs.

Few would give them much chance of beating the Predators here tonight with the Pittsburgh Penguins on deck Saturday at home. But thanks to a five-game winning streak, part of seven victories in the past eight tries, the Leafs have given this difficult part of their schedule playoff implications.

With Buffalo, Ottawa, Carolina, Montreal, Tampa and the New York Rangers all belt notches of late, the Leafs should at least stay in tonight's game beyond the national anthems.

"We're going to say this a lot I guess, but the next two games are important," goalie Andrew Raycroft said. "Everything is so close that every game means the teams right near you go up or down."

Raycroft makes his 16th start in a row tonight against the club that is second overall in the National Hockey League, a point behind Buffalo.

"It's a great measuring stick," captain Mats Sundin said of facing the Predators. "They play with high speed and intensity. You don't get a record like theirs through (luck)."

Once out of Tennessee, the Leafs will be done with their five-game trip and can peek over the mountain to next week when they start six games against current non-playoff teams. But first come the Penguins, three weeks after they administered an 8-2 drubbing and shot past Toronto on their way to fifth in the conference.

CLOSE TO FOURTH PLACE

"They don't look like they're gunning for eighth place anymore," Leafs coach Paul Maurice said. "They're not far off fourth (and the prize of home ice in playoffs). They have games in hand and they spend enough (time) on power play a game that their skill will always have a chance to win it for them.

"The one guy that's overlooked is (goalie Marc-Andre) Fleury. They blew the doors off us last time, but he made some saves when the game was tight to stop us getting on a roll. We're just going to have to play a penalty-free game against them, which most teams are trying, but find difficult."


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