All about pride for Leafs now

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:08 AM ET

BOSTON -- In recent days, we've seen the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Nashville Predators, the Washington Capitals beat the Ottawa Senators and the Phoenix Coyotes beat the San Jose Sharks -- all in regulation time.

In the first two cases, an elite team was defeated by a team long since eliminated from the playoffs.

In the third, a team desperately fighting for a playoff spot was beaten by a team with almost no hope.

Fans never cease to be surprised by results like these. If a team clearly is superior, they then expect it to win every time. And that's especially true when the opponent is just playing out the string.

But one of the attractions of sport is its unpredictability.

We're not dealing with random numbers and pure probabilities here. We're dealing with human beings.

On Thursday, the Maple Leafs lost in a shootout to the Boston Bruins, a team that has known for some time it will not be taking part in the post-season festivities.

In the process, the Leafs wasted a point they badly needed to keep their playoff hopes alive.

But a week earlier, the Leafs themselves were in the Bruins' role.

Coming off the double defeat in Montreal, where their playoff aspirations all but evaporated, the Leafs put together their first back-to-back road wins of 2006 and knocked off the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, a pair of teams scratching and clawing for every available point.

This refusal to run up the white flag is one of the most endearing aspects of National Hockey League players.

As Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe said after the Boston game:

"Guys never quit in this league. It's never a given that you're going to get two points."

Tom Fitzgerald, the grinding forward who helped to put the boots to his former team on Thursday, was asked what players on non-playoff teams use for motivation.

"You always find something," he said. "You might be playing for a job for next year. You might be playing to get some confidence if you're a young guy. We all were there.

"Personally, every time I put the sweater on, I have to do everything in my power to stay in the lineup because it might be my last game. That's motivation in itself and I think that has trickled down to a lot of these guys whether its a contract year or if you don't have a contract -- or if you have a contract but you're a young guy and you need to prove to the organization you're an NHL player."

This is a widespread NHL attitude.

Granted, there's the occasional exception, but when you make Alexei Yashin your captain, what can you expect?

Pride comes from within, and if your leader doesn't really care about anything other than his salary, why would anyone else in the room?

But most NHL teams share the approach embraced by Fitzgerald.

"There's always something to prove," he said. "To me, it's about being accountable to the guy sitting next to you, the guy across from you.

"This group, with the amount of changes we've had, the ups and downs, has been a resilient group. I think the accountability that we've had to one another has been extremely strong and there hasn't been any let-up at all. It's a great group of young players and it really is a fun group to be around.

"Unfortunately, we didn't do what we set out to do. But it's still, to me, like any individual. It doesn't matter what you play for. Any time you put on an NHL sweater, you should be doing it with a lot of pride, a lot of energy. Don't ever take it for granted."

The Leafs didn't do what they set out to do this year, either.

But if they play out the string with the same attitude displayed by Fitzgerald and his teammates, they still deserve to be proud of themselves.


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