TORONTO - To hear Paul Maurice talk, his Toronto Maple Leafs have the Ottawa Senators right where they want them.
The Leafs are winless in their last three games and are a notch under .500, while the Senators skate into Air Canada Centre as the overall NHL leader Saturday night (7 p.m. ET).
"I expect our best game," Toronto's coach said after practice Friday. "We need to be resilient at these times when there will be fewer and fewer people believing in our team,
"This is absolutely the best time to have a great game."
The Leafs have earned 19 of a possible 40 points. Maurice had said last month that he'd have a better handle on where his team when it reached the quarter pole, and that's where they are now.
"You could look at the last two months and tie them into the last 41 years and say, 'Well, things haven't changed,"' said Maurice. "But you have to have confidence and hope.
"That's what drives you and gets you out of bed and gets you to put in a good practice. I think we've got the leadership in the dressing room to do it. We've had an unusual start with things surrounding our hockey club that we've had to fight through. The season hasn't been lost by any means. We're not happy with where we're at but I do believe there's still quite a bit of hope in that (dressing) room."
The Leafs glided off the practice ice ranked sixth in goals for (3.15) and 29th among the 30 teams in goals against (3.60). They are ranked 18th in penalty killing and 29th on power plays.
"We've got to bring a little more fight to the table every night," said Maurice.
Mats Sundin has been a ray of sunshine with 26 points (9-17) for fourth spot in the league points race before Friday games.
Sundin and Nik Antropov are a commendable plus-8 on the plus-minus chart, while Bryan McCabe is a team-worst minus-7. There were 655 players ahead of McCabe and only 19 in the league with a poorer rating.
Maurice talked about improvements he's seeing.
Penalty killing efficiency is on the upswing as the Leafs haven't allowed a 5-on-4 goal in the last four games, and they're getting plenty of scoring chances.
Practice lasted only 45 minutes.
"Not a long practice but there was a lot of one-on-ones and some confrontational stuff in areas we have to get better in - controlling the puck at the front of our net and not getting beat out of corners," said Maurice. "We're closer to where we're going to need to get to be a championship team in terms of how we're starting to prepare.
"I don't think it's translated as well as we'd have liked on the ice but I do feel that in the last five games, four games especially, there's a clear understanding in the locker room and on the bench of the game we're trying to play and, more importantly, a clear acceptance of that. We have to do a simpler, better job of moving the puck from one end to the other. We cannot be caught with three guys caught down low poaching pucks.
"The start is there. We might be a little behind where we wanted to be at this point but at the same time we do think we are getting better in some pretty critical areas."
The goaltending has got to get better, he admitted.
The sombre mood during the practice reflected the seriousness of the task immediately ahead.
"We think we've got a good team and we've got to prove it (Saturday night)," said Darcy Tucker.
If the Leafs get blown out by the Senators, their fragile confidence might crumble. Then again, they don't expect to lose.