Northeast demanding better than .500

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:19 AM ET

A schoolyard argument is brewing in the National Hockey League, with lots of boasting that: "My division is tougher than your's."

Only three times since the Maple Leafs moved to the Northeast in 1998 has a divisions finished with nothing but .500 teams. This year, with every club on mostly equal footing because of the rules and salary cap, the Northeast, Northwest and Pacific have five teams either at, near or above the break-even point.

"We talked about it in Buffalo on Friday," Leafs defenceman Alexander Khavanov said. "This is probably the toughest division in hockey right now. Looking at statistics is dull, but everyone is at .500 and you have to play them all eight times.

"But that's a good thing. It keeps you sharp. Every game against those teams has been close."

With the exception of a blowout loss to the Ottawa Senators -- who still haven't passed the Montreal Canadiens in the standings despite averaging five goals a night -- the Leafs have had seven one-goal games in the Northeast, plus Friday's 5-2 loss to Buffalo. Ten of Montreal's 12 wins have been by a goal.

The Leafs have played the past eight games overall with a steady lose-win-lose-win pattern. But in doing the math for playoff qualification, 82 points in 82 games will not cut it.

"We do have to get on a streak," Leafs coach Pat Quinn said after beating the Habs 5-4 in overtime on Saturday.

"It's not good enough now and we're not happy with our play. If not for a couple of exceptional plays by our goaltender, we'd have lost (Saturday). We have to get over that hump.

"We played better (Friday against Buffalo) and lost and suddenly we get two points tonight. I don't know right now where we're going, but we have to get better.

"It looks like we're in the toughest division right now and so we'd better be tough."

The Leafs' coming week won't be easy either, with the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers here tomorrow. Then it's back to Boston on Thursday and home to face the quickly improving Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday.

But there has been some spark shown during this recent up and down stretch. On Saturday, Matt Stajan was mugged by Richard Zednik, somehow wound up with the penalty, but the Leafs turned it into a short-handed goal by Alexei Ponikarovsky.

"(Stajan) got cross-checked, punched in the face and slashed on the same play," Quinn said with a chuckle afterwards.

"But those (goals) are the types of things we'll have to do more often. If they respond in those types of situations instead of showing a little fear, you start to take things in your own hands and try to execute more."


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