Peca lends voice of experience

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:50 AM ET

Michael Peca plans on expanding his presence as the Maple Leafs fight for their playoff lives.

Even if he can't play while doing so.

Peca has every notion to take on the role of dressing-room story-teller in the final weeks of a dramatic season.

You see, Peca has seen this movie before, played in it, in fact. A year ago, with 12 games left in the regular season, Peca's Edmonton Oilers had 34 wins, the same number his Maple Leafs currently have.

A year ago, the Oilers wouldn't know until the final weekend of the regular season whether they had qualified for the post-season. There is every possibility these Leafs won't know until that time, either.

"It's a little uneasy mentally and emotionally to go through this," said Peca, the injured veteran Leaf. "The whole thing made us play at the top of our game just to get to the playoffs and once we did, we felt our game was already at the level it needed to be.

"Hopefully we can do that here. Last year, it felt (though March) like every game was a playoff game. We were fighting for our lives. It meant so much to everybody.

"There's that same feeling here. Guys know what's at stake.

"After last year, there's a lot of guys here who were very disappointed. They don't want to repeat that feeling. And then there are the new guys who came in, they want to contribute to the success of what's going on."

This is, under normal circumstances, Peca's time of year. While unimpressive much of last season, he blossomed down the stretch and was an enormous factor for the Oilers in their run to the Stanley Cup final. Barring something unforeseen happening, though, the Leafs won't have him back. They'll have to rely on others.

But that doesn't mean he can't help out.

"I think you do that kind of thing collectively," Peca said. "But I think it's the younger guys who need that reassurance. For us last year, guys like (Shawn) Horcoff and (Ales) Hemsky and (Jarret) Stoll stepped up and contributed down the stretch. We need that kind of support from the (Ian) Whites and the (Alex) Steens and guy like that to believe our team is capable and for them to believe they're a big part of our success."

The Oilers needed 15 points in their final 12 games to finish eighth in the West a year ago. The Leafs, with 77 points in 70 games, may need similar numbers. Edmonton went 7-4-1 down the stretch. When asked what the Leafs need down the stretch, coach Paul Maurice answered: "One more than the guys behind us."

But that's only if you end up seventh or eighth. The race, as it seems now, is five teams for two playoff spots. The Leafs are getting a little help from their friends.

Carolina is without No. 1 goalie Cam Ward and even though general manager Jim Rutherford is convinced his team will be in the playoffs, Ward's injury hurts. The Islanders didn't play star goalie Rick DiPietro last night because he is banged up. How long before he comes back? Montreal will finish the season without its first-string goalie. The Habs don't have an adequate replacement.

Never mind the apparent flaws in Andrew Raycroft's game: At least the guy is healthy and able to start games.

All season long, the Leafs have believed, myopically or not, that all they have to do is qualify for the playoffs and then anything can happen. It is an underwhelming goal to simply secure a playoff spot -- but at least it's not a stretch. It is realistic, if not unambitious.

But it remains the goal: Peca won't forget the night it became official, the Thursday night last April the Oilers officially clinched a playoff spot.

"It was such a big relief," said Peca, who turns 33 later this month. "You could just see it in the faces of the coaches and the players who had been there for a while. It seemed like we were all stressed out for a while. That seemed like we got the monkey off our backs."

"Hopefully, we can rewrite that story here. Last year, it was five teams fighting for three spots. It wasn't as stressful as having five teams for two spots.

"But I know from last year. These games are fun to play in. I wish I was playing 'em."


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