What a difference two weeks makes.
Fourteen days ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs hit rock bottom with a dismal 5-1 defeat in Phoenix. The loss, Toronto's third straight,dropped the team to 8-11-5and had fans and media alike waiting— some hoping— for the axeto fall on general manager John Ferguson and head coach Paul Maurice.
Fast forward a fortnight and the Leafs (12-11-6) are in the midst of their best stretch of hockey in nearly a year, going for their fifth consecutive win Saturday night at Air Canada Centre against the Boston Bruins (CBC, 7 p.m. ET).
The turnaround began three nights after the Phoenix debacle with Toronto salvaging a point in a 4-3 home shootout loss to Montreal. Next came two-goal wins over Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Nashville, followed by Thursday's stunning thumping of a strong New York Rangers team.
Nik Antropov led the charge by scoring on all three of his shots for his second NHL hat trick in a 6-2 Leafs win at Madison Square Garden.
Much maligned in Toronto for his chronic injury woes— he's averaged just 53 games in his first seven seasons— a healthy Antropov has helped the Leafs' resurgence with five goals in the last three games.
They shoot, they score
The towering forward's 14 goals on the season are only four shy of his career-high from last year, and he's appeared in all 29 of the Leafs' games.
"Nik is a good player," Maurice said after Friday's practice. "I always thought it was a little bit unusual, the abuse that he took, based on his performance on the ice."
Antropov, whose six-foot-six, 230-pound frame proved all but impossible for the Rangers to remove fromthe front of the net, potted two of his goals Thursdayvia deflections and the other off a goalmouth rebound.
"It seems I'm in the right place at the right time," said the 27-year-old Kazakh, who added that the NHL's post-lockout clampdown on interference has made it difficult for opposing defenders to prevent his setting up shop in the crease area.
Antropov's efficient performance on Thursday mirrored the Leafs' of late. The team has scored nine goals on just 31 shots in its last two victories, including the six markers on 16 shots in New York.
"Obviously, we'd like to get more than we had these last two games," said captain Mats Sundin, who has three goals and four assists in the last five games. "We've got to produce more shots than 16 if we want to be successful, but at least we're not giving up the high quality scoring chances. Not too many, anyway."
The Leafs, who last won five in a row from Jan. 27-Feb. 6, figure to get more scoring opportunities against a Bruins team that has allowed 51 goals on the road against just 19 on its own ice.
Boston (14-10-3) continues a difficult stretch of nine of 10 games on the road after losing 4-2 to Montreal on Thursday in the lone home contest over that span. The Bruins were coming off a 3-2-1 record during its season-high six-game road trip.
"You can't complain about the schedule," captain Zdeno Chara said. "We are a better team than that but we have to put this behind us because we have another tough road trip ahead."
Boston, which makes stops in Buffalo and Atlanta before opening a four-game homestand next Thursday, is 7-7-2 on the road.
The Bruins might give rookie goaltender Tuukka Rask his second consecutive start after he allowed all four goals on 30 shots to the Canadiens.
The 20-year-old Rask was thrust into the starting role Thursday after starter Tim Thomas suffered an apparent groin injury in a 4-3 overtime loss at New Jersey on Wednesday.
Rask was impressive on Nov. 20 in his first career start against Toronto— the team that drafted him 21st overall in 2005 before sending him to Boston for fellow goalie Andrew Raycroft— stopping 28 of 30 shots in a 4-2 Bruins win
Boston may also decide to give veteran goaltender Alex Auld his first start after acquiring him from Phoenix on Thursday in exchange for minor league forward Nate DiCasmirro and a fifth-round pick.
Auld was 3-6-0 with a 3.54 GAA and one shutout in nine games with the Coyotes this season. He is 1-2-1 with a 2.14 GAA in four games against the Leafs.
Toronto could be without Darcy Tucker on Saturday after the oft-banged-up forwardsat out Thursday's game with a sore back. Maurice said Tucker would be a game-day decision.