Leafs face an uphill battle

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:14 AM ET

Fans of the Maple Leafs are certain that their heroes, fresh from the Olympic break, will make the playoffs.

There's nothing wrong with holding that view. It is the duty of fans to support their team and to be positive.

But the reality is this: With the circumstances being what they are, the odds are very much against the Leafs.

First, there's the problem of the team itself. It is not exactly overburdened with talent. If it was, it wouldn't be languishing in ninth place.

You can blame the injuries all you want. Other teams have injuries too, many of them more debilitating than those suffered by the Leafs.

NO PITY

The key player on any team is the goaltender, and the inescapable fact is that most of the teams in the playoff hunt have been without their starting goalie for an extended stretch. The Leafs are one of the few teams that hasn't.

The Atlanta Thrashers, for instance, who only are one point behind the Leafs, played the better part of three months with goalies ranked fourth and fifth on their depth chart. And their best defensive forward and top faceoff man, Bobby Holik, suffered a long-term injury as well.

Injuries are a part of a game like hockey, and they are not the reason the Leafs are where they are. They are an excuse for the Leafs being where they are.

On another front, Leafs fans are hoping that captain Mats Sundin will continue to play at the level he exhibited during the Olympics.

He might. But if he does, it will be a first. Sundin has been around since 1990, and over the years, he has developed one consistent and unfailing trend. He saves his best hockey for the times that he's wearing the three crowns on his sweater.

But barring an unforeseen calamity, the Leafs' biggest problem down the stretch will be the schedule.

There is a slight home-away imbalance, but nothing to worry about. The real difficulties will be provided by the teams the Leafs have to face.

No fewer than five of their remaining games are against the Buffalo Sabres, a team that gives the Leafs fits even in its worst years. And this is one of the better years.

The good news is that only two games remain against the Ottawa Senators. The bad news is the Senators won the first six.

Only eight of the Leafs' remaining 25 games are against teams currently out of a playoff spot. And of those eight, two are against the Boston Bruins who are only one point behind the Leafs, even though they, like the Thrashers, lost their top two goaltenders for an extended stretch.

Another problem facing the Leafs is that that they're not likely to receive any help from the teams above them.

At the moment, the top seven teams in the conference are New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, Buffalo, Ottawa, Tampa Bay Lightning, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers.

There is not the slightest reason to think that any one of those seven is about to go into a tailspin.

If that is indeed the case, then the Leafs are in a five-way game of musical chairs for that eighth spot. They'll not only have to displace the team that currently holds it, the Montreal Canadiens, they'll also have to keep at bay the Bruins, the New York Islanders, the Thrashers and perhaps even the Florida Panthers.

Does all this mean that the Leafs are doomed? Not necessarily. It's not unknown for Ed Belfour to go on a hot streak and if he does, it wouldn't be the first time that he gave this team a string of victories that it otherwise didn't deserve.

But the struggle ahead is a prodigious one indeed and if the Leafs should manage to survive, they'll have to be one of the better teams in the league in the stretch.

But isn't that where you want to be heading into the playoffs?


Videos

Photos