SUN Hockey Pool

Don't be-Leaf in Toronto

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:01 AM ET

Welcome to the big leagues, Toronto. It's called the Western Conference.

Chances are you won't like it one bit.

Sporting, by far, the most deceiving (read: bloated) record in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off a three-game Western swing last night that is sure to be a litmus test for a team in flux.

So far, not so good.

Kicking off a nine-game stretch that will see the Leafs play seven on the road and all against winning teams, the Leafs lost 1-0 to Calgary in a goaltender's duel they could just as easily have won.

Still, the result is much the same as could be expected for the next little while.

Feasting off an Eastern Conference that currently boasts two, maybe three, potential Cup contenders, the Leafs have posted a 23-15-3 record -- similar to Calgary's only on paper.

Lost in the numbers is the fact only six of the Leafs' 23 wins have come against teams with winning records, three of which came in extra time or shootout.

Hardly impressive.

High off a six-game win streak that featured only one winning opponent in Buffalo, the Leafs finally ran into a true Cup contender in Calgary: A powerhouse in a league full of pretenders. In the end, a 25-12-4 Flames club that has won six of seven and has yet to lose in regulation to an Eastern patsy in six outings managed to make a soft Tony Amonte tip in stand for the win.

While the Leafs traditionally swept through the West with shocking success (pre-fiscal sanity), they'd be thrilled to win even one of the two games left now against Edmonton today and Vancouver Tuesday.

In five tries, the Leafs have now won just once against Western foes.

"This stretch is a good challenge for us, playing against the top echelon teams," said Calgary native Bryan McCabe, well aware of the west's strength.

"Aside from the first 10 minutes of the second we played well tonight but have to find a way to win these. You have to be above .500 on the road to be a playoff team."

Right now they're 8-8-2 away from the Air Canada Centre with a tough road ahead. While many knew the salary cap would pose hefty problems for GM John Ferguson Jr. the first year or two in, the fact that the Leafs are fighting for a playoff spot at all is impressive.

And while fans can point to Eric Lindros' early success, Jason Allison's quiet point-per-game pace, the emergence of Alex Steen or the career year by Bryan McCabe to help explain Toronto's good fortune, the fact is Ed Belfour has been -- and will have to continue to be -- the team's MVP if there'll be springtime hockey in Hogtown.

Regardless of his stats, he's kept the Leafs in more games than any Leafs fans care to admit. He did it again last night in a game that saw him keep his team's hopes alive in a 1-0 nailbiter with a spectacular pad save late in the game off Steve Reinprecht.

Truth is, behind McCabe and defensive partner Tomas Kaberle the Leafs are woefully thin on the blueline -- something ol' Fergie is going to have to shore up somehow.

Thing is, despite the fact the Leafs get to return to life in the country club of conferences soon, things don't get any easier for the East's sixth-place club as it has to face Ottawa twice more before month's end -- a team that has won all four meetings.

Still leading the league in creating great atmospheres everywhere it plays, the team Canada loves to hate can use this stretch to show it's worthy of its shiny record. Or, they could start the fade back to a more realistic spot on the playoff bubble that will have them fighting until game 82 for a post-season party they've attended ever since Pat Quinn arrived in 1998/99.

Most figure it's the start of a journey that will likely end up one place -- out of the playoffs.


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