Is it too little, too late?

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

The Maple Leafs vowed to play last night's matchup against the Montreal Canadiens as if it was a playoff game. Makes you wonder what they might have accomplished had they applied the same determination to the rest of the games they've played since the dawn of the new year.

Apparently, they had to be backed into a corner, embarrassed really, by their own uninspired play these past two months. Motivation for professionals shouldn't be this painful. Or take this long to materialize.

In any event, after last night's 5-3 victory over the Canadiens the flickering flame of hope burns just a tiny bit brighter this morning. To a man, the Leafs believe they have a good chance to make it to the post-season. Now they have to prove it, night after night with little room for error.

While that is still very much a debatable premise, at least it served its purpose last evening. The Leafs had plenty of jump, they had old Eddie Belfour doing an impersonation of young Eddie Belfour and they took advantage of a steady string of Montreal penalties, scoring three times with the man advantage, breaking open a close game with two goals in the third period.

"We have to approach every game like that," said Belfour. "It's do or die. It was definitely a good feeling to see things go our way for a change."

Belfour made 30 saves, many of them of the spectacular variety.

"Eddie was good," said coach Pat Quinn. "He was the difference.

"Now, we have to start over again. We've won one in a row and we have to build off that. It only becomes significant if we can go out every game and do what we have to."

In a quick state-of-the-team press briefing during the second intermission, general manager John Ferguson Jr. reaffirmed his belief that the Leafs could and should make the playoffs.

"This is the same club that was nine games over .500 (in early January) but it seems such a long time ago now," he said. "The performance of our club recently has been unacceptable."

Going into last night's game, Toronto had won just three of its previous 18.

The Leafs still have a big hill to climb if they are planning to get into the Stanley Cup tournament that begins in about six weeks time. Indeed, all last night's win did was stop the bleeding after five consecutive defeats. Had they lost, the Leafs would have been almost dead in the water, 10 points out with 21 to play. Now, at least, they have extended hope a bit longer.

Montreal, which holds the eighth and last playoff spot right now, has a six-point advantage on Toronto.

But it's not just the Canadiens that Toronto must worry about. Atlanta and Boston are also in the thick of things and both those teams have been playing better hockey than the Leafs lately.

So, taken by itself, this victory won't mean a lot unless the Leafs are able to win 15 or more of their remaining 21 games.

"I don't know about the mathematical formula," said Quinn. "What I do know is that we have to win a lot more than we lose from now on."

Had they lost, there was every chance a fire sale would ensue. Now any deals Ferguson makes in the next 36 hours will be made with an eye on this year, as opposed to simply planning for the long-range future.

No Leaf had a bigger game or was of more inspiration to his mates than Tomas Kaberle. The newly-signed defenceman was the best player on the ice, scoring once and assisting on three others while once again logging over 30 minutes of ice time.

To make it all worthwhile, the Leafs will need six more weeks of this kind of desperation hockey to make the world at large take notice.

They have tough opponents all the way down the line from now until the end of the season. Four games against Buffalo, singles against Ottawa, the Rangers, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. And two more in Montreal against the Canadiens.

Tough sledding, to be sure. But at least the sled hasn't fallen through the ice.

Not yet, anyway.


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