Maple Leafs can't let up

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

Turin could be the turning point in the Maple Leafs' New Year's nosedive.

Thanks to their win over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, the Leafs have a chance to get to the two-week Olympic break at or near eighth place in the Eastern Conference, and to replenish their decimated defence.

The unstated goal this week is to beat the Atlanta Thrashers here tomorrow to get four games above .500 and hope for a split with the vastly improved New York Rangers in a home-and-home that leads into the break.

"We really have to be ready to play Atlanta," coach Pat Quinn said, no doubt narrowing his focus to containing its top scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk. "It's one of the clubs we're battling and jockeying with for a playoff spot."

The Leafs-Thrashers rivalry has changed dramatically as this National Hockey League season has unfolded. On Oct.14, the Leafs creamed them 9-1 at Philips Arena in a fight-filled game, amid predictions Atlanta would self-destruct before Christmas. Jeff O'Neill had a hat trick and his second consecutive winning goal for Toronto. The Leafs won two successive meetings, but coach Thrashers coach Bob Hartley's team opens the week just three points behind Quinn's in pursuit of its first playoff spot.

The Leafs normally are building towards 100 points at this time of year, not scraping for playoffs.

"(Eighth place) is not where we really want to end up focusing," Quinn said. "But that's where it has to be for the next little while.

"Hopefully, we get through this and perhaps during the two weeks we're (off), some good things might happen with some of our personnel."

Only Alexander Khavanov has a chance to get back before the break and that's a big 'if.' He can't start skating until at least tomorrow as he lets a horizontal hairline crack in his foot heal. He would require two days of workouts to get in just one of the Rangers games.

Aki Berg (ribs) was to resume skating yesterday, while the rest of the Leafs took a day off.

"I don't know what that expectation brings along," Quinn said of Berg's progress. "I don't expect him back before the break."

Centre Eric Lindros is to be re-examined today, but the Leafs can't count on him until March, if his bum wrist heals at all.

But the Leafs have been getting offence from such players as winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, who had two goals against the Devils, improving his career best to 14 this year. He cited the Devils game as proof the Leafs might be coming out of their funk.

"We've struggled for awhile, trying to get our system and everything back," Ponikarovsky said. "(Jersey) scored two quick goals, but everyone on the bench said 'we're not going to let them repeat (what Phoenix did in erasing a 3-0 lead on Jan. 14).' We had to stand up, put the puck past them and work it low."


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