Leafs pack their bags

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

The next time the Maple Leafs step on to the Air Canada Centre ice for a game:

a) Many Christmas trees will have already been stripped of their decorations and chucked out the door.

b) You will have gulped down so many meals of leftover turkey you'll start gobbling in your sleep.

c) All those awful, ill-fitting gifts will have been exchanged, no matter how many sets of argyle socks you might need in your wardrobe.

The Leafs do not have another home date until a Dec. 29 matchup with the New York Rangers. In the meantime, they face seven consecutive road dates against Eastern Conference opponents, a run that kicks off with back-to-back games in Atlanta against the Flames Friday followed by the classic Hockey Night in Canada matchup versus the longtime rival Montreal Canadiens Saturday at the Bell Centre.

While playoff positions are not hammered out in December, the next two weeks could go a long way in sorting out the logjam in the Eastern Conference entering the new year.

Entering play yesterday, only eight points separate the seven teams the Leafs are skedded to face in their upcoming journeys. The third-place Carolina Hurricanes had 35 points while the 14th place Florida Panthers, who faced the Calgary Flames last night, came into the game with 27.

Jammed smack dab in the middle of all this chaos are the Leafs who, with 32 points, can make some significant inroads while on the road.

"It's huge for us," goalie Vesa Toskala said. "The way we've been playing, especially with confidence, we have a chance to grab a lot of points."

In the process of snapping up 11 of a possible 14 points in their past seven outings, the Leafs have been getting contributions from all over the roster.

Jason Blake has goals in back-to-back games and seems to have rediscovered his scoring touch. Nik Antropov is enjoying his best season and is quickly approaching his career high of 18 goals.

Meanwhile, captain Mats Sundin continues to defy Father Time by being one of the league's top players at age 36, and Hal Gill, normally known as a defensive specialist, is on a career-high four-game points streak and has 14 on the season.

"It's exciting," Antropov said. "We've been playing quite well of late and that includes on the road."

The Leafs can enter the Christmas break on a jovial note by continuing their previous success in the Sunshine State.

Toronto is a combined 28-10-6-1 all-time while playing in Florida and Tampa, the two venues they will visit before enjoying their brief Yuletide holiday.

"This upcoming (stint) will be huge for us," defenceman Tomas Kaberle said. "It could go a long way toward determining our season."

ROAD RAGE

A look at the seven consecutive road games facing the Leafs before they return to the Air Canada Centre Dec. 29:

FRIDAY @ THRASHERS

RECORD IN ATLANTA: 9-4-0-1

This five-win-in-six-game streak by the Leafs began with a 4-2 decision in Dixie two weeks ago. Recent pickup Mark Recchi should be an interesting addition to the Thrashers power play.

SATURDAY @ CANADIENS

RECORD IN MONTREAL: 96-201-43-2

Leafs won their only previous visit to Montreal this season, collecting a 3-2 win on a late Matt Stajan goal on Nov. 3. These fabled rivals have played one-goal games in their past five meetings at the Bell Centre, a run that includes three shootouts.

DEC. 18 @ HURRICANES

RECORD IN CAROLINA/HARTFORD: 16-19-5-1

Leafs will be out to make amends for the 7-1 thrashing they absorbed at the hands of the Hurricanes at the Air Canada Centre back on Oct. 9. You can bet former 'Canes coach Paul Maurice always has a bit of extra motivation whenever he returns to Tobacco Road.

DEC. 20 @ LIGHTNING

RECORD IN TAMPA: 18-4-1-1

Very few visting teams have dominated in an opposing rink like the Leafs have in Tampa. That's just more reason for concern for combustable Lightning coach John Tortorella, who watched the Leafs wax his Lightning 6-1 at the ACC Monday.

DEC. 22 @ PANTHERS

RECORD IN FLORIDA: 10-6-5-0

Panthers dropped a 3-2 decision to the Leafs in the only previous meeting between the two teams this season, that coming on Oct. 18 in Toronto. Goalie Tomas Vokoun has played better of late.

DEC. 26 @ ISLANDERS

RECORD ON LONG ISLAND: 21-31-3-2

Leafs pasted Isles 8-1 during only other 07-08 meeting, that coming on Oct. 11 at the Air Canada Centre. Jason Blake likely will be cranked up for his first appearance at the Nassau Mausoleum since signing with the Leafs as a free agent this past summer.

DEC. 27 @ FLYERS

RECORD IN PHILADELPHIA: 20-42-8-1

Back-to-back games should help Leafs shed any excess blubber picked up while stuffing themselves on Christmas Day turkey. Leafs will get their first look at a revamped Flyers team featuring new faces Daniel Briere and Kimo Timonen.


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