Maple Leafs can't afford any letup

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

When the Maple Leafs last ushered in New Year's Day together in 2004, they led the Eastern Conference and were halfway en route to 100 points.

But today's 47 points at midseason doesn't buy much in the National Hockey League's new order. And rather than relax a bit as they carry a five-game winning streak into tonight's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the sixth-ranked Leafs see lots of action in their rearview mirror. There are seven teams -- five of them out of the playoff picture at the moment -- within 13 points of the Leafs.

It used to be 90 points was the minimum required for playoffs. This season, that may not be enough.

"It is almost must-win for us in this stretch because we're going to need them," captain Mats Sundin said yesterday after the Leafs returned from a 6-3 win in New Jersey. "We're going to be on the road a lot in January (nine out of 13 games) and play a lot of teams above .500. We'll need this stretch as a foundation to play the teams at the top of the league."

Leafs coach Pat Quinn couldn't hide his admiration for the way his club has overcome injuries to two centres and a first-line right winger to win six of seven against clubs lower in the standings. But he'd rather head to Western Canada on Wednesday with two more points in the bank at the expense of the struggling Penguins.

"With so many three-point games (an automatic point for going to overtime, an extra point for winning it) it's hard to tell what will be the (magic playoff number)," Quinn said. "But really, that's not what we look at. (Playoffs) are the target, but since it can't be quantified, you have to think of this moment. If we're doing things right, then we have a chance to be a good playoff team and who knows, be even better later on."

After four one-goal wins, the Leafs had a little fun in Jersey on New Year's Eve. Season-long contributors such as Darcy Tucker remain hot, but callup John Pohl and the once-invisible Mariusz Czerkawski have come up big at a time when Eric Lindros, Jason Allison and Alex Steen are hurt.

When called upon, goalie Mikael Tellqvist has done his job, sporting a record of 5-3-1 and a .919 save percentage. Though he was in net Tuesday when the Leafs won in overtime in Pittsburgh, it's expected his next start will be one of the back to back games against Calgary and Edmonton this weekend.

"I've been on a few teams that haven't made the playoffs in St. John's," Tellqvist said of the Leafs' farm club's bad luck. "Basically, it sucks going home and not making it. You want to be around for the fun part.

"If it takes 90 points, then it's important to win in December and January, because come March and April when everyone's trying to get in, those games become harder."


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