|The Leafs' Darcy Tucker (right) and Tomas Kaberle tangle during yesterday's practice at the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs will be looking for their fourth consecutive win when they play host to former teammate Ed Belfour and the Florida Panthers tonight. (Toronto Sun/Ernest Doroszuk)
The Maple Leafs already have gone one better than last year's team on the adversity scale.
In Game 57, a 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Feb. 11, that Pat Quinn edition fell from eighth to ninth place and never made it back above the playoff line. With a 9-2 win over the Rangers on Saturday, on the heels of 4-3 victory over Carolina, the Leafs have risen from ninth to seventh.
DOWN THE STRETCH
"It's in our hands now," centre Matt Stajan said yesterday at the Air Canada Centre. "Last year when we got down the stretch we were relying on other teams to lose games. We did our job (9-1-2), but teams we chased did theirs, too. This time, we want to make sure it stays in our hands.
"It will be close all year, but our job is to pull away from the pack. We did that early on and then went into a funk (seven losses) that put us right back to where we were at the start of the year. We're above that .500 mark now and we don't want to go anywhere near that again."
Coach Paul Maurice, whose team faces the Florida Panthers tonight at the ACC in search of a fourth straight win, said those on the ice and behind the bench all gained valuable experience from that shocking skid. He was frank about errors he and the staff made trying to beat the demons out of the dressing room in early December.
"I don't want to say we prolonged it, but we took players to task and didn't try to feel our way out of it by saying nice things to each other," Maurice said. "We paid for it. Next time, we'll handle it differently. (Last time) was foundational, we needed to go through it. The wounds are still healing. We're playing a slightly different style of game now that we're better at."
The last one-sided game the Leafs enjoyed -- 7-1 over the Washington Capitals on Nov. 24 -- was followed by the seven losses and vast fan and media condemnation of key figures such as general manager John Ferguson and goaltender Andrew Raycroft.
"We're starting to get some breaks, like (against New York)," Raycroft said.
"We scored nine, but the game could've gone the other way. Eight of them went off legs or deflections."
Maurice warned not to expect another windfall tonight when the Panthers come to town. They are last in the Southeast Division and tied for the third-worst goals-against total in the National Hockey League.
"I think it will be a low-scoring affair, based on the way they've played us of late," Maurice said of a 2-1 shootout win here and a 4-2 loss in Florida on Nov. 2.
"They have good goaltending (ex-Leaf Ed Belfour likely goes tonight ahead of Alex Auld) and they really took it to us in Florida. Their back end is big and it skates well. But we're a little different team than the last time and hopefully we move the puck a little better.
"You always find something to worry about as a coach. You score nine and you wonder if we're getting soft."