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Leafs in light-hearted mood as they set out to play next seven games on road

TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs have broken even on the road so far this season but they'll have to do better than that in their next seven games, which are all in opposition arenas, to keep their heads above water in the NHL's Eastern Conference.

The Leafs were ninth with 32 points from 31 games after practice Thursday morning. "We've been playing pretty well on the road so it doesn't make me nervous at all," Vesa Toskala says of the seven-game challenge.

The five-foot-10 Finnish goaltender will get most of the starts.

"As long as he's hot we're going to allow him to play the bulk of the games because he's playing very well," says coach Paul Maurice, adding that "we don't (want to) leave the other guy out too, too long."

The other guy would be Andrew Raycroft, who has been rooted on the end of the bench. To Raycroft's credit, he's not rocking the boat about being relegated to backup status.

"I could be standing here telling you guys I want to play but that doesn't do anybody any good," he told writers descending on his cubicle after interviewing Toskala. "You know, I'm in the National Hockey League and I want to play as many games as I can.

"That's the reality of it, but I don't need to sit here and talk about it. As long as we're doing well and everybody's happy, I just need to work hard and do my thing."

The seven games require three trips. The Leafs play in Atlanta on Friday and in Montreal on Saturday and fly home immediately after facing the Canadiens. They leave Monday for games against Carolina on Tuesday, Tampa Bay on Thursday and Florida on Saturday. They return home for Christmas and hit the road again for games against the Islanders on Dec. 26 and Philadelphia on Dec. 27.

"I think we'll certainly need more than one goalie on that (closing) stretch," says Maurice.

The only gripe Wade Belak has is that there's no rest day in Florida this season.

"Last year we had a day off in Florida and guys went fishing or golfing but this year it's all business," said the big forward, who has his suitcase and verbal needle ready. "I think we've bonded enough up till now but it's always good to get out with the guys and raz each other."

Darcy Tucker missed the practice.

"He's just a little under the weather," Maurice explained. "When you have young kids they bring it home and you get to share it.

"He'll be fine for (Friday)."

Bates Battaglia, a healthy scratch for all but 13 games, was assigned to the Toronto Marlies AHL farm team.

Maurice declined to set a goal, in terms of points, for the seven-game stretch.

"We're in the thick of this fight with about 17 teams so there's no point in looking at any game past Atlanta," he said. "You have to win them all.

"You'd hate to think you go in there and say, 'We've got seven games and we'll be happy with 4-3, or 5-2 would be great,"' he said. "We'll go with the idea of, 'Let's win the first one and see what happens after that."'

Should any player suggest 10 points might be a target to set for the seven-game challenge, Maurice has a message.

"We'd like to do that in the first five," he said.

There is no mystery about how Toronto has managed to gain 11 of a possible 14 points in its last seven games: hard work.

"We've adjusted to the fact we have to play consistently every game and bring a work ethic that is needed to win hockey games," said Alex Steen. "I think we've gotten a lot better at that."

Toskala agrees.

"The puck has been bouncing for us a little bit more than it was earlier in the season and that always comes when you work hard, the bounces come to your team," he said. "We've been working hard, and we've been much smarter, too."

Jason Blake has been more effective skating with Kyle Wellwood and Tucker, working offensive plays off rushes, than he was with Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov, when he was toiling unproductively in corners.

"I don't want to say there's less pressure but certainly there's less focus on Jason when he's not playing with Mats," said Maurice. "He's not playing against the other team's best set of defencemen all the time and I think Jason can concentrate on his game."

Maurice was in fine form. A voice in the media throng suggested, jokingly of course, that Belak would probably be picked for the all-star game but would decline due to a lower-body injury.

"He's a giving person and . . . a young guy like (Sidney) Crosby might be named if Wade declines," said Maurice. "He's a kind and giving person. Merry Christmas."


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