IT’S DO OR DIE FOR LEAFS

So, that was a pretty good way to begin a four-game, do-or-die road trip, right? Frankly, I can’t think of a better one. By blowing out the Atlanta Thrashers in Georgia, the Maple Leafs have shown they clearly understand the magnitude of this trip. As I have preached since the beginning of this season, this team has the talent to be a 2011 Stanley Cup Playoff team. But they do not often display the will and desire to make it so. They did on Friday in Atlanta.

This trip to California and politically troubled Arizona is the Leafs’ longest of the year. They will play three teams, the Kings, Sharks and Coyotes, who, at this moment, each have exactly 11 more points than the Leafs in the standings. They are fighting for a Western Conference playoff spot that only one of them may achieve. The Leafs are dreaming of that spot in the East.

With Montreal’s huge comeback Saturday night v. Boston, the Leafs are now 13 points back of Montreal and that coveted eighth spot. I firmly believe the Leafs can still achieve that goal, but these next three games will be the pivot point. The Leafs must get five of a possible six points out west, or it’s over. Simple.

The best thing about the game in Atlanta was that, finally, someone other than Mikhail Grabovski decided to play like it was life or death. Nikolai Kulemin had two goals, two assists, five shots on a goal and a +2 rating. Phil Kessel had a goal and an assist and fired six shots on the Atlanta net. Grabovski was, of course, his recently brilliant self: two goals, one assist, +2 and seven shots on goal.

In that game in Atlanta, the Leafs proved that, with effort, they can be one of the best teams in the NHL. Don’t misunderstand here. They are NOT Stanley Cup contenders. Not even close. But they are a MUCH better hockey team than the one that has played the first 40 games of this season.

The year is not even half over for Toronto. There is still time. But some weaknesses are being exposed. Jonas Gustavsson is, with every game, being shown to be an average netminder. That’s a shame, because it looked so promising for a while. His mobility has become non-existent. It’s simply drop and pray. That’s rarely a Hall of Fame philosophy, unless you’re an Olympic diver. Maybe we’ll start seeing a little more of James Reimer.

Either way, by Thursday night, Leafs’ fans will know whether to keep the faith, or start looking toward the 2011-12 NHL season.