Leafs are just too average

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

If the Maple Leafs are going to make anything of this season, then there are going to have to be a lot of nights like this one when they scrap and scrape, stumble and bumble and, in the end, play not quite as badly as their opposition.

The Leafs are, like so many other teams in the Eastern Conference of the NHL, terminally average. Anything more than that has to come from deep inside the individuals on the bench and that doesn't seem to happen often enough, especially with four regular forwards out of the lineup with various injuries.

There has been a lot of talk recently about players "stepping up" but not a lot of evidence that they are.

Two weeks ago, after a horrible stretch, the Leafs won three games in a row and looked rather impressive in the process. But for most of last night's game you couldn't recognize that team.

Lest you think this is a rather harsh assessment of a game the Leafs won, then be aware that seldom are they going to get the kinds of gifts offered up by Minnesota goalie Manny Fernandez, who wrapped up a couple of Christmas presents on the way to Toronto's 4-3 victory. On the other side of the coin, he was just marginally worse than Andrew Raycroft, who allowed the tying goal to slip between his pads and had great difficulty finding the puck all night.

In the end, the Leafs got a penalty shot goal by John Pohl and, later on, found that switch that turns them from an uncertain outfit, lacking in confidence, into a team on a mission. For five or six minutes in the third period, they were on fire, playing with the kind of urgency they keep talking about but seldom demonstrate.

You look at Toronto's record, a game over .500 and it doesn't appear all that bad on the surface. But .500 isn't what it used to be.

Now, anything less than 90 points, maybe 92, and you're watching the Stanley Cup tournament on TV.

With Mike Peca, whose value to the club, both on and off the ice, is measured not in statistics, gone for three months, there is a gaping hole in the lineup. While Sundin is the leader of this team, Peca might be its conscience. He is as important to team chemistry as he is to the penalty kill, constantly reinforcing the sense of obligation and accountability that coach Paul Maurice wants from each and every player.

Last night was a win that could have easily gotten away from the Leafs. The guess from here is that they will have to pull off this same Houdini act time and time again if they plan on making the playoffs.

Leafs captain Mats Sundin tries to find teammate Darcy Tucker in front of the net at the Air Canada Centre last night. With the 4-3 win, the Leafs snapped their three-game losing streak.


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