Injuries could be fatal

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 3:29 PM ET


 At the end of a long day of hurt and disappointment, the Maple Leafs dressing room was silent and empty.

 By then, Joe Nieuwendyk was already home, having been treated for a wonky back that gave out at precisely the wrong time.

 By then, Mats Sundin had already left the building, having walked -- not limped -- slowly to the solitude of the team bus.

 By then, the Maple Leafs, so confident and poised in the morning, seemed short-handed and vulnerable at night.

 And the post-game silence of the dressing room at the Corel Centre in Ottawa screamed ever loudly: This is a team now in disrepair. How and if the Leafs bounce back, without Nieuwendyk, their best player through the first three games, and without Sundin, traditionally their best player, is maybe the stuff of miracles.

 Maybe too much to ask of this Maple Leafs team.

 Gary Roberts, forever the leader, tried hard to make it sound all right when it was over, when the Leafs first ran out of gas, then out of bodies in a 4-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators. The final score was not as stunning as the fact the Leafs began the night without Nieuwendyk in the lineup and ended it without either him or Sundin.

 Roberts woke up from his regular afternoon nap to learn his lifelong friend wouldn't be able to play that evening. Then he lost his centreman. It isn't often you wake up and then the nightmare begins.

 "I'm hoping both guys aren't going to be out that long," Roberts said, biting his lip, simply not knowing, trying to be positive. "We definitely have to find a way to battle through this."

 They can battle all they want: They just can't win without Sundin and Nieuwendyk. Not against this Senators team. The advantage, if the Leafs have any, is at centre. Take away that advantage and what is left for the Leafs?

 Maybe they can play without Nieuwendyk for one night. But they can't play without both, they can't possibly win.

 With Nieuwendyk, his career is forever day to day. The Leafs knew that from the time they first acquired him last September. His back problems have too often interrupted his hockey brilliance. Last spring, the New Jersey Devils won a Stanley Cup without him playing in the final. And the thing is, you never know with him. Yesterday, in the morning, he seemed fine, working out on the StairMaster in the hallway outside the Leafs dressing room, with little indication he would be absent at night.

 A CHANCE

 Now, he has to be fine for the Leafs to have a chance. He carries the unaccomplished pair of Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky -- which may account for some back troubles -- to form a line that's more accomplished than the sum of its parts.

 He has to be fine, or Sundin has to bounce back from his heavy collision with the boards last night after being upended by Wade Redden on a scoring opportunity.

 "Injuries are something we don't talk about or worry about," Tie Domi whispered, not stopping as he walked from the dressing room to the team bus. But while it's clear they are not talking about the extent of the injuries -- the Leafs employ their own neutral-zone trap on information -- they are indeed worrying.

 Coach Pat Quinn's face was bright crimson, the frustration of the situation more evident in his look than in his words. How often has this happened to him? Last year, it was Doug Gilmour and Owen Nolan and Nik Antropov and Travis Green and Glen Wesley and Darcy Tucker who either player hurt or missed games in the first round. The year before, they lost the rarely injured Sundin for 12 games.

 All this gearing up for Stanley Cup runs crumbling now by circumstance. Another playoff series, another set of injuries, another Leafs season on the brink. 


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