Leafs put to the test

With the Maple Leafs badly in need of a win, defenceman Brendan Bell likely will make his NHL debut...

With the Maple Leafs badly in need of a win, defenceman Brendan Bell likely will make his NHL debut tonight after being called up from the Marlies yesterday. (Toronto Sun/David Lucas)

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:33 PM ET

Rarely does an NHL team try to build off a game in which it suffered its fifth-consecutive loss, but that's exactly what the Maple Leafs will attempt tonight when they play host to the Montreal Canadiens.

And as they try to keep their tiny playoff hopes alive, the Leafs also are going to forge something which won't be easy to do considering their recent outings -- a playoff-like intensity.

"If you can do it for two months in the playoffs, you should be able to do it for the two months getting into the playoffs," winger Darcy Tucker said. "We are going to have to do it. It's not drawing anything out of a hat, there are no rabbits coming from anywhere in here. You just have to go out and play hard and get yourself wrapped up to play.

"We're looking upward. We're going to go as hard as we can for the last little while."

Even if the Leafs win tonight, all that may be accomplished is their confidence is buoyed for a couple of days. They would be six points behind the Habs, but would have to worry about Boston, Atlanta and the New York Islanders.

In a 4-2 loss at home to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the Leafs performed with some enthusiasm that had dried up recently. They've lost all three of their games since the Olympic break ended and tonight marks the one-month anniversary of their most-recent win, a 4-1 victory on Feb. 7 against the visiting Atlanta Thrashers. Coach Pat Quinn said Ed Belfour will start in goal tonight. Defenceman Brendan Bell, meanwhile, has been tabbed to make his NHL debut after being recalled from the Toronto Marlies.

"(The game against Ottawa) was progress for us, but we need to be taking bigger steps forward than that, and I am pretty positive with our effort in that game we will do that," rookie Alex Steen said. "Our backs are against the wall. We have to start winning."

Take it for what it's worth, but the Leafs did not appear to be an eager bunch at practice yesterday. There was not a lot of pep until the last drill, when nets were placed at the side boards in one end and the team went three-on-three.

Despite appearances, captain Mats Sundin is confident in the group and what it collectively can bring from within.

"I think we still have a good spirit and we still believe in this group we have here," Sundin said. "There are a lot of rumours around this time of year but we have to leave that outside the room. Our playoffs started this week and we have a playoff game to play (tonight). It is a huge game for us and that is all we have to focus on."

Quinn didn't completely agree with the notion his team has to play with a sense of desperation tonight.

"That is one of those funny words," Quinn said. "But I think our guys certainly realize, and they have for awhile, that they are not just going to try to turn it on here now because of the nature of this game. They have been working hard to get back to their comfort level. This is an important game. That is just an understatement."


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