Pat Quinn probably won't get out his paring knife for at least another few days, but it's clear Maple Leafs camp is heading into a critical stage for the hopefuls.
A pre-season tilt tonight against the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre kicks off three games in four nights for the Leafs, who go to Montreal on Saturday night for a rematch before heading to the nation's capital to face the Ottawa Senators on Sunday evening.
Quinn's advice to the bubble boys is fairly simple: Don't do anything dumb.
"It will be the ones who are making the least number of positional mistakes and errors with regard to the puck and being safe and smart (who don't get tickets to the Marlies)," the Leafs coach said. "The physical skills are all pretty close in a lot of ways."
A group of 25 players who practised together yesterday morning -- one that included forwards Alexander Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Clarke Wilm and Nathan Perrott and defencemen Carlo Colaiacovo and Andy Wozniewski, as well as the majority of regulars and Steve Thomas and Bryan Marchment -- was identified by Quinn as being "almost all of the ones that we are going to keep looking at."
Still, Quinn was not about to write off anybody.
"I'm not trying to make the roster now," Quinn said.
That may be true, but there are some players in camp who seemed destined for Paul Maurice and the Marlies since Day 1. Among those are three solid young defencemen, Jay Harrison, Brendan Bell and Ian White.
"Guys like Brendan and Ian and myself, we have to do something pretty spectacular to get noticed because there are some skilled guys who deserve to be where they are," said Harrison, who has three seasons in the AHL under his belt. "There is a patience and I think that comes with experience. I just want to get into good habits. It can be as difficult as you want to make it on yourself."
Two men who will be Leafs regulars once they become healthy find themselves in different boats. Centre Jason Allison, who has been nursing a right hip flexor injury, was back in black yesterday, taking part in practice in a black sweater and socks, a sign to teammates that he was not be touched. But Allison, if he has his way, will play tonight.
"I feel good and ready to go, but it's going to be their call," Allison said in reference to Quinn and his staff. "I understand the precaution. It has been a long road."
Defenceman Ken Klee, who has a bruised heel, has no idea when he will be back. Klee, without equipment except his gloves, skates and stick, went for a brief skate yesterday. It was the first time Klee was on skates in eight days but he is unsure when he will be ready to return to game action.