The Maple Leafs now are halfway through their National Hockey League regular season and what a long, strange trip it has been.
They continue to fight through identity and injury crises, have endured a seven-game losing streak, yet still nudged inside the playoff eight at Game 41.
Thanks in large part to an energy shift by fourth liners Kris Newbury, Ben Ondrus and Wade Belak, they ganged up on the road weary Boston Bruins 5-1 last night in a vital divisional game. Mats Sundin had two goals and three points, while goalie Andrew Raycroft put a second strong game in the books.
"It doesn't take a genius to realize the situation we're in," Sundin said, as his team won for just the second time in seven games, passing Boston and the New York Islanders to sit eighth in the conference this morning. "We need to win games now, we can't wait for people to get back (from injuries).
"We know we have to be a better defensive team than in the first half. We thought our problem at the start would be scoring, but we need to keep them out. We put ourselves in better position on the ice tonight and that's why we scored."
Coach Paul Maurice concurs that the division-worst 138 goals against are not the fault of an inconsistent Raycroft and some struggling veterans on defence, but indict forwards who failed in forechecking and generated little speed through the neutral zone. Such problems were overcome most of last evening.
"In the third period, we only gave up five shots and they had a 5-on-3," a pleased Maurice said. "We've talked for a while about being a better defensive team with five guys injured up front. When it happens, we score five."
With the Leafs looking a tad tentative holding a 2-1 lead in the second, the fourth line unleashed itself. Ondrus and Belak, the latter's helmet lost after several run-ins with6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara, enabled Newbury to get a quick corner shot away that fooled Tim Thomas. Belak and Chara went to the box in the general tussle that followed the celebration of Newbury's first NHL goal.
"I'm not sure where the puck is now, but hopefully it's going on a plaque for my house," said the Brampton-born Newbury, who was third on the Marlies with 10 goals when he was recalled. "I was just happy it went in. Put pucks on the net and strange things happen."
That shift underlined what Newbury, Ondrus and Boyd Devereaux have to do to stay, Devereaux helping his cause with an assist to give him three points in as many games. The three farmhands were summoned the past few days, though Darcy Tucker's surprise return last night likely means Alex Suglobov will keep sitting.
Belak's line was used regularly in the third period and closed out the victory.
"It was nice to be used every other shift," Belak said. "We don't get a lot of ice time, but when we do, we have to be physical and hold the puck down low. Newbie got an unbelievable goal."
Tucker came back a few days earlier than expected from a slightly cracked right foot, but was nearly sidelined with a shoulder-area injury when Paul Mara spun him heavily into the boards in the first period. He was also cut in the forehead by Andrew Alberts in the same period.
Sundin now has chipped in 17 points the past 11 games. The much maligned Bryan McCabe had two assists, while another defenceman, Hal Gill, recorded his third goal. Jeff O'Neill closed the scoring on the power play for the Leafs, while Chara's 5-on-3 goal gave Boston a brief lead.
The Leafs had managed just four goals in as many meetings against Thomas, being outscored 12-4. The teams go at it Thursday in Boston in the seventh of eight meetings.
A- Forwards: From the muckers to three-point man Mats Sundin, they swarmed Boston goalie Tim Thomas.
B Defence: They were physical, while Bryan McCabe and Hal Gill contributed points.
B Goaltending: Andrew Raycroft was steady from start to finish.