Gut-check time for the Maple Leafs

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

OTTAWA -- Every so often, a team faces a must-win game.

Tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in a game that is even more uncommon than a must-win game.

It's a must-play game.

Whether the Leafs win or lose doesn't matter an awful lot. Far more important is the way they play.

If they compete and lose a tight game, it will not be the result they want. But at least they will have answered their captain's challenge and shown their fans that there is still some reasonable expectation of success.

But if they get blown out again, as they have in their past three games against the Ottawa Senators, the message will be too plain to ignore.

They will have turned it off. They will have lost their pride. They will have stopped playing for coach Pat Quinn. They will have shown that their captain cannot motivate them.

They should all be embarrassed by Saturday's debacle. At times, they played as if they'd never been coached. They were constantly out of position and in a dreamworld, getting trapped while the Senators sent their forwards away to roar in alone on Ed Belfour.

They made a host of mental errors, some of them out of pure selfishness. The physical play -- which the Leafs used to inflict upon the Senators at random to alter the course of games -- was non-existent.

As Sundin said, "Just getting the puck out of our own end seems like a victory right now, and that's not the way you win hockey games."

After Saturday's shellacking, only Ken Klee and Ed Belfour had the courage to obey the league rules and make themselves immediately available to the media.

Most of them did what they had done all night and dodged their responsibilities. Then captain Mats Sundin came out and drew a crowd, thereby allowing many of the others to use the diversion to sneak away unchallenged.

But Sundin did what a captain should do. He accepted the blame and issued a challenge to his charges.

"It's going to take all of us in the dressing room," he said. "We can't look at the standings right now. We can't worry about what the end result is going to be on Monday. We have to make sure that we come out, work hard and just worry about the next shift when we're on the ice. We can't look any further ahead than that."

Sundin clearly sees the urgency in this. He's not advocating gradual, leisurely improvement, or predicting a change of fortune somewhere down the road. Tonight's the night.

"We have to turn this thing around right now," he said. "If we keep playing like this, we're not going to make the playoffs. It's as simple as that."

Today's hockey has parity, 30 teams and huge playoff revenues. Put those factors together and you've got a situation in which points are too valuable to be squandered for long.

When the Montreal Canadiens lost seven of nine, Claude Julien got fired. When the Pittsburgh Penguins lost seven of nine, Ed Olczyk got fired. When the New York Islanders lost six of seven, Steve Stirling got fired.

The Leafs have now lost six of seven.

Sundin opted to blame his teammates rather than those who supervise them. "The coaches put a good system in," he said. "They prepare us as well as they can, and it's up to us, there on the ice, to get the job done.

"Right now, we're far away from the team that we were two weeks ago and if we come back and work hard we can turn this thing around, there's no doubt about it."

It has to start tonight. The Leafs have to play as if they belong on the same ice as the Senators.

If it's another blowout, then the message is inescapable. It's time for general manager John Ferguson to make some moves. Whether it's with players or coaches is up to him.


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