Leafs red hot at worst time

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:39 AM ET

So, in the bigger scheme of things, what is to be made of this last-gasp Maple Leafs rally which, presumably, is doomed to fall agonizingly short?

Well, for one thing, they didn't quit. Many teams, faced with such an uphill fight to make the playoffs, would have waved the white flag.

But nobody ever has questioned the character of this club. Indeed, at Christmas when the Leafs were riding high, it was one of coach Pat Quinn's talking points that, in his experience, this core group of players always has been able to dig deep in the face of adversity.

Little did he realize how hollow those words would sound just two months later.

The problem this year for the Leafs was in recognizing adversity when they faced it. That happened in January and February and, by the time they figured out they were up to their eyeballs in alligators, it was too late.

Sure there were key injuries, but every team has injuries. They adjust. Even after the supposedly rejuvenating layoff during the Olympics, the Leafs arrived back at work in a lousy state of mind and body.

They lost three in a row and four out of their first five coming out of the layoff. How big would even two more wins during that period be now? The turning point came after their double dose of defeat in Montreal, March 23 and 25. By that time they were 5-8 since the break and were presumed dead.

Since then, the Leafs have played with a sense of urgency that few believed them capable of, especially anyone who watched them sleep-walk their way through the dog days of January.

If I am general manager John Ferguson witnessing this re-awakening, I suppose a part of me would feel mildly vindicated. But another part of me would be mad as hell.

How is it possible for a team, a veteran team at that, to turn on the emotional spigot exactly one or two games too late?

That's exactly what this Leaf team has done. If it can play with fire and determination in April, why not in March?

All over town now false hope has been rekindled, but time and the schedule is not on Toronto's side. The Leafs must run the table in their final four games -- against the New York Islanders tonight, Ottawa, Buffalo and Pittsburgh -- while hoping that both Atlanta and Tampa Bay falter.

"I think we've been doing a lot of good things the past three weeks," Mats Sundin said one day after playing one of his best, if not the best, game of his career as a Leaf.

"We've won a lot of our games but so have the teams around us. The most important thing is that we stay alive.

"We have four games left and that's what it's all about."

Now it's true that the Lightning look a little wobbly right now and their outlook isn't bright because they have to face Carolina twice. But they get to finish against Washington. They also have a five-point cushion on Toronto; four on Atlanta.

SO-CALLED RACE

Atlanta gets Washington twice, Boston and Florida, which is about as soft a finish as they could hope for. Plus they are already a point closer to Tampa than is Toronto.

Whatever the outcome of this so-called race to earn the right to be dispatched in four or five games by either Carolina or Ottawa, nobody should lose sight of the harsh truth about the Leafs.

Whether they make the playoffs or not, they are a seriously flawed outfit that needs more than a bit of cosmetic surgery.

"Some nights the game is easy and many nights you wonder what's going on," Sundin said yesterday.

He was referring to his own six-point night on Tuesday but he could have been talking about the unpredictability of the Leafs in general.

As one of the NHL's cornerstone franchises, it's a shame for this team to be scrabbling for a playoff spot rather than seriously contending for a Stanley Cup.

It's natural enough for Leafs fans to get caught up in the moment. Leafs management, on the other hand, should be embarrassed.


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