After an awful start to the season, the Anaheim Ducks have climbed back into the thick of a crowded division race, so maybe there's still hope for the Toronto Maple Leafs to do the same.
Mike Babcock's team doesn't have the benefit of a division with the bottom six teams all within five points of each other, but Wednesday night's trip to Anaheim is its next shot at continuing some strong play that's now lasted a month.
The Maple Leafs (15-15-7) have two fewer points than the Ducks (16-15-7) in one less game but have a double-digit deficit between themselves and third place in the Atlantic Division, while Anaheim could be in second in the Pacific with a strong week. But circumstance isn't discouraging Toronto, which is enjoying a 7-2-2 span after Saturday's 4-1 home win over St. Louis.
Toronto is averaging 3.64 goals in those 11 contests and gone 4-1-1 against the Western Conference heading into a three-game trip against the Pacific. For the season, it's 10-5-1 against the West and 5-10-6 versus the East.
"We seem to have had some success against Western Conference opponents and we definitely want to keep that rolling now that we head out to their neck of the woods," said center Peter Holland after breaking a 1-all tie at the start of the third period.
"We feel like we're playing a really good brand of hockey right now and we know we're going to be competitive every night if we play the way we're supposed to play."
James van Riemsdyk scored to extend his point streak to six games and has seven goals with five assists in his last 10.
Toronto has also been able to rely on Jonathan Bernier quite a bit more often. He's won consecutive starts with a 1.44 goals-against average and .963 save percentage and has gone 5-2-0 since opening 0-8-3 with a 3.46 GAA. He'll start again with James Reimer missing time with a groin injury, and Bernier is 5-2-1 with a 2.15 GAA against the Ducks.
Anaheim figures to counter with John Gibson, who's put Bernier's numbers to shame. The rookie made 19 saves in Sunday's 4-1 home win over Winnipeg and has posted a 0.75 GAA and .963 save percentage with two shutouts over a personal four-game winning streak. He hasn't allowed more than three goals in 15 games this season and was named December's Rookie of the Month.
In large part because of him, the Ducks have enjoyed a 4-0-1 span on which they've been limited to one goal three times.
"If we're not scoring a lot of goals, we better play pretty well defensively," coach Bruce Boudreau told the team's official website. "The guys have really taken to it. You can hear them talking on the bench about doing the right things. (Ryan) Kesler said it a couple of weeks ago. He said he was tired of losing."
Kesler scored for the second straight game after managing four goals in his first 36. This one came on the power play, and while the Ducks still aren't generating tons of chances with the advantage, they've gone 6 for 11 in the last five games following an 0-for-9 span over the previous five.
This all follows a hideous start that included four points from 10 October games.
"You never want to put yourself in that position, but with the start we had, the one fortunate thing is that our whole conference, almost, had that start," captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "We were able to stay in the picture. Hopefully we take advantage of it."
These teams split two meetings last season, but the Maple Leafs have won six of the last seven with 4.14 goals per game.