Leafs bouncing back nicely

Leafs captain Mats Sundin listens to coach Paul Maurice (not shown) during practice Monday. (Sun...

Leafs captain Mats Sundin listens to coach Paul Maurice (not shown) during practice Monday. (Sun Media/Michael Peake)

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:38 AM ET

This is not meant to be funny: The Maple Leafs are an injury or two away from being Stanley Cup contenders.

You can look it up. The more people get hurt, the better this team plays.

It is almost unexplainable in this unexplainable season turning good, except for one small point -- it also happened last season. When the great John Ferguson Jr. signings -- Eric Lindros, Alex Khavanov and Jason Allison -- all went down, the Leafs went up.

Only then there wasn't time to make the playoffs. This season there is time and opportunity. So long as the Leafs continue to play short-handed at full strength.

Consider these numbers:

Mats Sundin misses seven games and the Leafs collect nine of a possible 14-points in that time. That's 105-point pace over an entire season.

Darcy Tucker misses 19 games and counting and the Leafs collect 23 of a possible 38 points in that time. That's a 99-point pace over an entire season.

Pavel Kubina misses 16 games and the Leafs collect 20 of a possible 32 points in that time. That's 110-point pace over an entire season. One more Kubina injury and who knows, maybe a President's Trophy.

And the numbers are almost identical for the 23 games Kyle Wellwood has missed and the 22 games Michael Peca has been out.

Which, if you're scoring at home, means the Leafs at various times have been without a $6-million player, a $5-million player, their second highest paid centreman at $2.7-million, their top offensive youngster, and their soon to be wealthy (just how wealthy?) gritty, annoying, power play scoring winger.

It is, in a way, truly remarkable. This isn't the Raptors. There is no Chris Bosh here. There is no emerging Andrea Bargnani.

Which says a few things -- imagine that, nice things -- about the Leafs: 1) This has become one resilient hockey team; 2) If he hasn't already become a candidate for coach of the year, Paul Maurice is about to be mentioned prominently, and 3) The pickups who could have, or did, clear waivers in September -- Bates Battaglia, John Pohl, the currently injured Boyd Devereux, Chad Kilger, and you can include Jeff O'Neill, who would have gone unclaimed -- have all become significant contributors to a team playing playoff hockey two months before the playoffs begin.

Go figure.

"I wish I knew why," said Sundin, who would never point to himself because that isn't what he does. But Sundin never has been more of a leader, more of a factor than he now.

When O'Neill and Alex Steen seemed on the verge of disappearing, the three teamed with Sundin to become a powerful if not short-lived line.

When Nik Antropov was out -- isn't that redundant? --and Alexei Ponikarovsky was trying to find himself, the two were teamed with Sundin and suddenly they look unstoppable.

"A big part of what has happened here is our leadership," Maurice said.

Leadership from Sundin.

Leadership and a strong vision from Maurice.

You could watch Saturday night's game between the now floundering Edmonton Oilers and the surging Leafs to illustrate the difference in two teams of unequal talent playing at two completely divergent levels.

The Leafs are hungry, desperate, going to the net with passion: Everything the Oilers represented in last spring's playoffs. The Oilers are spectacularly disinterested, too easily satisfied, too often unwilling to do what coaches call "pay the price."

Both Sundin and Maurice point to John Pohl as Exhibit A of the development of this club. Pohl began training camp on, in Maurice's words, "on the fifth line."

By the time the season began, he had advanced to the fourth line.

Lately, it's the third line with power play privileges.

"He has really stepped up his game," Sundin said.

OFFENSIVE FLAIR

"He has shown he can score in this league, too, the last few weeks. The younger guys are pushing the older guys to be better."

"There's very little arrogance in the room but there's starting to be a little confidence," said Maurice, a far cry from the frail team he began with in September.


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