Leafs face uphill climb

DON BRENNAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:39 AM ET

Never mind what the calendar shows, it's been mid-April in Toronto for a while now.

The Maple Leafs entered last night's game clinging to the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 73 points -- the same number as the defending Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, but having played one fewer game.

As far as traffic jams go, they were in one relatively similar to what the Don Valley Pkwy. looks like at rush hour.

Within six points back were four other teams -- Montreal (72), New York Rangers (71), Boston (69) and Florida (67) -- heightening the importance of the schedule's final month.

"We've been playing a lot of playoff hockey already, the way it's been going," Leafs winger Darcy Tucker said before last night's game against the Senators. "We been up all around that eight spot for two months now, so we need to continue to play the way we have been.

"We're in a position, with 15 games left in the season, to control our own destiny. When you have that option, you can't ask for anything more.

"Maybe it's good we're in this dogfight," Tucker added. "It might be a good omen for us going this early, playing more of a playoff-type hockey.

"We've battled hard to get to this spot. We don't want to let that hard work go for naught."

Making their chore tougher is the loss of Tomas Kaberle, the eighth-leading scorer among NHL defencemen. Kaberle was knocked out of the lineup with a concussion on a controversial hit by New Jersey's Cam Janssen last weekend. While there has been plenty of speculation about whether he'll return this season, the truth of the matter is no one knows for sure.

FINDING A WAY

"We've had a lot of guys out the whole year, but we've found a way to win games," said captain Mats Sundin. "Tomas is a big part of our team, but this is a good chance for some of the younger guys to fill in for him, and we'll have to do without him."

The Leafs are about to receive a big boost as Kyle Wellwood is near ready to return from a sports hernia operation. Coach Paul Maurice yesterday said Wellwood's participation in tomorrow's game against the Senators in Toronto is "highly possible."

Not that Maurice was really looking that far into the future.

"Maybe in November," the Leafs bench boss said when asked if he approached these home-and-home games differently than others, "but right now, with the situation our team is in, we've been on a one game shot for quite a while now.

"There is no home and home. There's only one game. Tonight."

The Leafs play the majority of their remaining games at the Air Canada Centre, but in their case, that's not a positive.

Entering last night, they were 19-11-4 on the road and just 13-15-5 at home.

"Look at our schedule, we play a lot of top teams," said Sundin. "I think we realize we have a lot of work ahead of us to earn a playoff spot. We have to continue to win hockey games. It's not going to be easier as we go on. We have a tough schedule the rest of the year. But I think we feel comfortable with our team.

"We're starting to get some guys back from long-term injuries ... it's an exciting time of the year. Playoffs have started for us almost already."


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