Leafs face tough five-game stretch starting with Friday date in New Jersey

It’s not a time to be struggling with every point in the standings shuffling the deck in the mad scramble that is the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

A playoff spot may hang in the balance as the 10th-place Leafs prepare to face off against the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 team in New Jersey on Friday night, followed by the first-place team, Buffalo, in Toronto on Saturday night. A home-and-home with the NHL’s hottest team since the all-star break, Ottawa, comes next Thursday and Saturday. A home date with Washington sandwiched in between is the only game where the Leafs are favoured to win.

“The key there is don’t look at that five-game stretch,” Leafs head coach Paul Maurice said Thursday. “Just look at the one game against New Jersey.”

Morale is low in Leaf Nation after a 1-3-1 showing in the last five games, including losses this week to Montreal and Buffalo but, just when things have appeared headed south this season, the Leafs have made a habit of bouncing back.

“We have, we’ve handled our adversity well even if we’ve created some of it ourselves,” said Maurice. “We’ve fought back and I think it’s a credit to that leadership in that room, and I believe we will again.”

J.S. Aubin will get a start either Friday or Saturday, which will end Andrew Raycroft’s streak of consecutive starts that currently sits at 25.

“We’re going to use both, we’re going to split these games,” Maurice said after practice. “We haven’t decided how we’re going to go yet.

“We have a minor injury to deal with (to Aubin), it’s kind of a day-to-day thing. Depending on how it feels in the morning, that’ll decide how we’re going to go.”

The arrival of trade deadline acquisition Yanic Perreault at practice made Maurice scramble his forward lines. Captain Mats Sundin is now between Bates Battaglia and Nik Antropov, Perreault is centring Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jeff O’Neill, Matt Stajan is in the middle with Alex Steen and John Pohl on the wings, and a fourth line has Travis Green between Chad Kilger and either Boyd Devereaux or Wade Belak.

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For Battaglia, the first-line assignment is a crowning achievement after spending all of last season with the AHL Marlies.

“I’m definitely happier this year than I was last year, I can tell you that,” Battaglia said. “Playing on a line like that, I don’t know what to say, it’s a pretty good thing.”

Maurice said the promotion was fully deserved.

“His last two to three weeks of play, to me he looks like he’s got back to that form that we saw years ago,” said Maurice, who coached Battaglia in Carolina. “He was big, strong and confident with the puck and we’re starting to see that come back.

“Regardless on which line he’s played on recently he’s played well. His game is close to his peak right now and when that happens we like to put those guys with Mats.”

Darcy Tucker and Pavel Kubina skated with the others but wore yellow jerseys designated for players still on the mend. Tucker hopes to come back at some time within the next week or so.

“I feel good compared to where it was a week ago,” said Tucker, who hasn’t played since Jan. 1 while recovering from hairline fractures in his left foot.

“We’re hopeful that he can get to full contact in the middle to the latter part of next week,” said Maurice.

Kyle Wellwood (groin) skated alone for the third straight day. He’s another two to three weeks away.

“I’m taking it cautiously,” he said.