Fight to the finish

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:39 AM ET

None of this is new to Paul Maurice. His entire life has been a playoff fight.

This is his tenth season coaching in the National Hockey League and the truth is, not one of them has been a slam dunk.

He has never had one of those teams, those Scotty Bowman Detroit teams, those Pat Quinn Leafs teams, the kind that qualified for the playoffs by accident. Maurice has been a career repairman and he hasn't been blessed with a lot of Maytag rosters along the way.

One more thing about the coach: He loves this. He lives for it. His face may be uncharacteristically taught, his demeanour more stressful than usual, and his developed sense of humour on hold, but this is his time of the year. This is the battle that gets the juices flowing.

This is why he coaches for a living.

This is Year 10 for Maurice and the mathematics for the Maple Leafs aren't necessarily encouraging or discouraging. Only the history is somewhat dubious.

One year Maurice got fired before he had the chance to miss the playoffs. Five other times he missed out, once by as little as two points. Three times he made the playoffs in Carolina, one year ending up tied for the final spot with the Boston Bruins, who missed out with fewer wins.

In his only great season --performance wise -- the Hurricanes finished first in their division and scrapped their way to the Stanley Cup final. That was a 91-point team.

This year, with the phony three-point games, 91 points may not be enough to be anything but eliminated.

From the beginning, Maurice predicted a dog fight and while this race has more the feel of puppies yapping at each other -- will a real contender please stand up? -- Maurice was, in fact, correct in his assessment.

"People gasped when the coach of the Maple Leafs said that," goalie Andrew Raycroft said. "It's going to go down to the last day of the year."

Last Friday, it seemed like there were five teams fighting for the final two playoff spots. But by the end of the weekend, the numbers had changed. Tampa Bay, by virtue of its own incompetence, had entered the playoff fight: Now it's six teams fighting for three spots.

Oddly enough, the Leafs came away from the weekend with just one of four attainable points, but increased their chances of making the playoffs by 10% at the same time. Two of five is 40%. Three of six is 50%. This is the new math of the new and occasionally improved NHL.

Playoffs start in March for Maurice almost every season: Getting to the middle of April is the annual challenge.

"I look forward to this," the coach said. "I think you have to enjoy the juice. You have to enjoy the buzz before the game. And the eight-minute mark in the third period of a tie game has to be something you look forward to. Those are probably the most enjoyable part of the season for me. That's when you're working, and it's all on the line.

"In the '02 (season), you go about two months (of playoffs) when you drink an awful lot of coffee, watch way too much video tape. And if there is (charm), that's the charm of the job. By the time you get to this point, you really enjoy it or you're doing something else.

"If you can't stand it, you don't continue to put yourself through it. I don't drive my car on the highway fast, but I would love to take it out on a track. I don't do a lot of things where I'm looking for that edge. I don't live on the edge, but I do enjoy when hockey games are."

Tonight it's New Jersey. Friday and Saturday it's Buffalo. Next week, it's Carolina. That's two past champions and a future champion. Then, it's Atlanta and Pittsburgh. All teams ahead of the Leafs. None of them pushovers.

Paul Maurice wouldn't expect any different. It's the only kind of hockey season he has ever known.


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