Eight is enough for Leafs

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:27 AM ET

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Twenty-three days, eight consecutive losses and a countless number of nooses being tied by panicked members of the Maple Leafs nation.

And now it's over.

The relief could be seen on the face of Darcy Tucker, who limped through the dressing room with an ice pack on his right knee, a gash on his chin and a smile on his face.

It could be seen on the often scowling mug of goalie Ed Belfour, who finally could flash a grin after weeks of seemingly endless defeats and trade rumours.

Most importantly, it could be seen on the scoreboard that hangs over centre ice at the BankAtlantic Center, home of the Florida Panthers.

Maple Leafs 4, Panthers 2.

The losing streak was done. Finito. Going, going, gone.

Not since a 3-2 victory over the Oilers in Edmonton on Jan. 7 had the Leafs enjoyed the opportunity to embrace their goaltender after the final buzzer knowing their work had resulted in two points.

The win gave the Leafs sole possession of eighth place in the eastern conference.

But the victory did come with a price.

Defenceman Alexander Khavanov was lost in the first period when he took a shot off the foot and went down, weakening an already thin blue line that already featured three rookies -- Jay Harrison, Staffan Kronwall and Andy Wozniewski.

But the freshman trio joined veterans Ken Klee and Tomas Kaberle to hold the fort, thanks very much in part to Belfour, whose 33-save performance preserved the hard-earned victory.

Coach Pat Quinn said Khavanov will be evaluated today. In any event, the defence corps will get some much needed help when Bryan McCabe returns from a nine-game absence because of a torn groin muscle tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Leafs had gone 0-7-1-0 in McCabe's absence before last night.

"It's nice to stop this (skid) but this thing should have been stopped a while ago," said Quinn, eager to put the worst losing streak in his seven-season tenure behind the Toronto bench in the past.

Captain Mats Sundin figures the recent adversity could help the team in the long run.

"Sometimes when you come through something like this it makes you stronger," Sundin said. "We feel we have a good team in this room and we feel like we can really build on this."

No one exemplified the team's resiliency more than Tucker, who reached the 20-goal plateau for the fifth time in his career.

After returning to the lineup from a rib injury Saturday, Tucker injured his knee during a collision against the Montreal Canadiens and was a game-time decision last night.

Not only did he play, he joined Chad Kilger, Jeff O'Neill and Kyle Wellwood in the scoring parade. He also took a scary high stick to the face late in the game.

"We needed this," a banged-up Tucker said. "It's good to win like this. The victory is more important than any goals I scored."

The entire team couldn't have said it any better.


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