Leafs losing grip

Maple Leafs head coach Pat Quinn acts as drill sergeant during practice yesterday. It went from bad...

Maple Leafs head coach Pat Quinn acts as drill sergeant during practice yesterday. It went from bad to worse for the Leafs, who were routed 8-2 by Ottawa Saturday, as rookie Alex Steen injured his thumb while trying to brace a fall. (Toronto Sun/Dave Abel)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:44 AM ET

Until now, the Pat Quinn Maple Leafs have no concept of life on the other side of the track, meaning below the line separating the eight playoff clubs from the Eastern Conference have-nots.

But they could be in for some culture shock, starting tonight against the New York Islanders. A win by the visiting Isles will knock Toronto into ninth place, the price to pay for five losses in its past seven games in a tight National Hockey League.

After getting nipped by a group of Pacific Division teams in one-goal losses, then pounded 8-2 by the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, the Leafs now play seven of their next eight against clubs all clawing beneath them for the last playoff spot.

Altready missing forwards Eric Lindros, Nik Antropov and Tie Domi, the Leafs could be without top-line right winger Alex Steen tonight. The rookie Swede suffered a possible dislocated right thumb yesterday at practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena and is day-to-day.

That news and the lingering sting of another thrashing by the Sens made for little Christmas cheer yesterday. In the past three seasons, the Leafs have been a combined 29 games over .500 at Christmas, but by tomorrow, they could be at their lowest ebb since Oct. 20, 2003, when they were 10th in the East.

"Satchel Paige never wanted to look behind him," said Quinn, of the old baseball player's famous quote. "But the facts are you could look at the start of the year at the teams and know that this (conference) would be a battle, except Ottawa has clearly jumped up.

"We have to be paying it a lot of attention, but also to ourselves and our own game, because it hasn't been consistent."

General manager John Ferguson acknowledged the Leafs are suddenly feeling teams such as the Isles breathing down their neck.

"This is certainly a critical juncture," Ferguson said. "Just look at who we're playing (through the holidays). The Islanders, a couple against New Jersey, home and home with Boston ... we need to gain on those in front of us, but stay in front of those behind us."

GOALIE DECISION

Despite a temptation to use Mikael Tellqvist in goal tonight (2-0 in his past two games and unbeaten in regulation the past four), the presence of Ed Belfour in net yesterday indicates Quinn has plenty of faith in his 40-year-old veteran. Belfour is in a slump of 0-5, but four losses were by a goal.

"I haven't made my mind up for the next game yet," Quinn said. "You think about all your positions and we need to have a lot of our players come up with better performances. Sometimes it means making a change, whether it's in goal or not."

Quinn didn't rant at yesterday's practice, but said there was a "business tone" to the workout. He ended with a one-on-one with slumping captain Mats Sundin at centre ice, though Sundin was not available for comment afterwards.

"I think everyone realizes that we have slid the past couple of weeks," forward Chad Kilger said. "We're still in this, but a lot of teams are catching up. If we get on a little streak we can get right back up where we were.

"These games are huge. It's a couple of teams we haven't seen yet and two divisional games against Boston. We have to start playing better and get out of that funk we've been in."


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