For one night, this is as good as it gets

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

BUFFALO -- The dark cloud that has hovered over this Maple Leafs season dissipated, if only for one bright, almost perfect night.

A win that coach Paul Maurice called "the most important of the season."

A win that captain Mats Sundin, with unusual emotion, called "huge ... enormous."

A win that emerging scorer Alex Steen called "a night of cliches. That's what it's grown into. Everybody did what they were supposed to do tonight."

For what it is, for what they are, this is all you can ask of the Maple Leafs.

They can give no more. They can probably not be any more complete. Not for one game. Not for a game against the first-place Buffalo Sabres, the potential Stanley Cup champion Buffalo Sabres.

A game the Leafs won from beginning to end, without question, without doubt.

They managed that last night with a pencil-thin lineup and a roster dotted with the unaccomplished and the unwanted.

They outplayed the Sabres: 60 minutes wasn't a television show, it was the recipe for a shocking victory.

They outplayed the Sabres with Travis Green and Wade Belak, Bates Battaglia and Ben Ondrus, Kris Newbury, Boyd Devereaux, Brendan Bell and John Pohl in their lineup.

The AHL all-star game was played a few weeks earlier than scheduled and the all-stars were good enough to beat the Sabres last night.

"We got great contributions from everyone," said coach Maurice, who looked as though he could exhale and enjoy the moment for one of the few times this season.

This was as good as his Leafs have been, as solid in every area of play from goal on out, as deep as they appeared without any kind of depth.

"It shows if you do the right things, we can give ourselves a chance to win," Maurice said.

This was only one night, only one win, but every victory will be magnified as the race for eighth place heats up. This may be only January, but the race has begun. This is six teams, all of them flawed, and probably one playoff spot to fight for. Momentum changes by the minute, the bounce, the period.

The Leafs were a rag doll in the morning, a fierce competitor at night.

"We're as baffled in this room (as the fans are)," said Sundin, when asked what to make of this team. "It's a challenge for us, this whole season is a challenge. We have to have the same effort every night. We have to prove we can do this. We're not there yet, but if we work like this every night, we can be there."

This may be the weakest and thinnest Leafs team in years, but there is something endearing about them. The more bleak the season appears, the less this team wants to get kicked around. This is team going nowhere that won't leave.

Last night, they were the guest that wouldn't leave.

And when they do that, they remain as one of the enduring charms about hockey. You don't always have to be better. You don't have to be bigger. There is always a place for hard work, for positional play, for decision-making, for winning battles.

This is a Leafs team that isn't going to win any beauty contests. They can't dance with the Sabres or the Stars. They can't skate with them, either.

Sundin must look around some nights and wonder what and who he is left to play with. But he has never been the complaining type and last night, when it mattered most, with the season tail-spinning out of control, he did what he doesn't ever get enough credit for. He led.

He won faceoffs, set up goals, battled for loose pucks, played more than 22 minutes, outplayed and outworked any of the Sabres all-stars.

"Your leader has to walk the walk," Maurice said. "We don't have specialists on this team. We can't rely on individuals. We have to work. He is the one guy who can say that, if not for me, that would be the death of us."

Last night, there was Maple Leafs life. For one bright, shining night.


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