Maple Leafs need help

Mats Sundin is all smiles as he talks with teammate Tomas Kaberle the day after his four-goal,...

Mats Sundin is all smiles as he talks with teammate Tomas Kaberle the day after his four-goal, two-assist game against the Florida Panthers. The Leafs will need more of the same and some outside help in order to make the post-season. (Toronto Sun/Fred Thornhill)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:01 AM ET

The Miracle on Bay St. still needs a lot of help from unseen forces.

But the Maple Leafs squeaking into the National Hockey League playoffs is a much more plausible story than 19 days ago, when they were given up for dead after back-to-back losses against the Montreal Canadiens.

They haven't lost in regulation time since (6-0-2), found goaltending in Jean-Sebastien Aubin, leadership in Mats Sundin and could reach the familiar 40-win, 90-point territory of most Pat Quinn-coached teams.

Now they require three or four more wins and United Nations-type aid on the out-of-town scoreboard. With the Atlanta Thrashers slowing up the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, the Leafs conceivably could pass both clubs if one or both hit the skids.

The first stage will be tonight on Long Island, where a Toronto win over the 12th- place-and-sinking Isles would close the gap on Tampa to three points. The Lightning kick off difficult back-to-back games against the Southeast Division leading Carolina Hurricanes tomorrow, slightly ahead of the Leafs wild weekend against Northeast nemeses Ottawa and Buffalo.

"It's sad to say at this time of year that we have to depend on someone else to crumble, but that's what we're banking on," defenceman Luke Richardson said yesterday. "Hopefully, we can get some help. But we're just trying to win the games we can determine."

ATTITUDE

Quinn barely has touched his roster during the late-season surge, carrying the minimum 20 players, while a playoff-style us-against-the-world attitude prevails.

"The players did talk a little bit after what happened in Montreal, but it wasn't a real closed-door, heart to heart," Richardson said. "It was more like, 'We've put ourselves in this hole, let's dig out and see what we've got.' "

Sundin, Tuesday's white knight, looked the part in a white dress shirt as he headed to the airport yesterday. His six points in a wild overtime win over the Florida Panthers re-established his club scoring lead and gave him 826 points in 828 games as a Leaf. Much of this year's production came after the Olympics.

"I've done nothing different, I just got a bit more ice time since the break," Sundin insisted of getting up over 20 minutes a game.

Describing Sundin's feat on Tuesday, Quinn said, "Lock that in your memory box, it's a good one."

Richardson said Sundin looks more emboldened and it's having the desired effect on the opposition.

"He's getting some room now and once that happens, the defenders back off," Richardson said. "He doesn't need much space to put it in the net.

"At times, things go bad for everyone. In a demanding city such as Toronto, there's a lot of pressure on the captain, especially if he's an offensive player. But since I've been here, he has been nothing but a professional on and off the ice. He really makes the new guys and the young guys welcome."


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