Leafs need more heroes

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:43 AM ET

One year ago today the music died for Leafs Nation.

As anniversaries go, it's one the Maple Leafs would rather forget. So it is cruel reality that their biggest weekend of this season falls on the date of one of their difficult, and most recent, failures.

Tonight they play in Buffalo, with the rematch tomorrow in Toronto. Lose these two and the Maple Leafs' chances of making the playoffs look bleaker than Darcy Tucker's chances of winning a Lady Byng. It's the biggest back-to-back set-to since Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton said: "Shoot!" back in 1804.

It was one year ago tonight that the Leafs found themselves in much the same situation -- facing a two-game set against the Montreal Canadiens they had to win. It turned into a nightmare. They didn't just lose. They were humiliated not once, but twice by a cumulative score of 11-3, dropping them seven points out of the final playoff spot. There was no recovery.

So how come teams facing their biggest challenges can come out so seemingly flat -- like when the Leafs in 2000 lost Game 6 of the playoffs to New Jersey while putting up just six shots?

How can they look so over-matched, as the Leafs were in two loses within a week to these same Sabres less than a month ago? How can a team look as disinterested in a no-tomorrow situation like the Leafs 5-1 Game 7 loss to New Jersey in 2001? And it's not just Toronto. Sports history is full of big bloopers. I mean, just mention the words Super Bowl and you can make any Buffalo sports fan weep.

"In my experience it's not that a team comes out flat," Michael Peca said yesterday. "What happens is players are tentative to step up and they're waiting to see Mats Sundin step up, or Darcy to step up, instead of taking the bull by the horns."

"To be a good team you need everyone to be a leader. We can't have guys sit there and wait for other people to get the job done. That's when you get those scenarios, when you look flat in big games because as a team you're being too tentative."

In other words, if the Leafs hope to find success this weekend, the Matt Stajans and Jeff O'Neills and Bates Battaglias and Bryan McCabes can't wait for the usual heroes to be heroes. On this trip, there is no room for passengers. "This may be the best team in the league so we have to be at our best," head coach Paul Maurice said.

The Leafs have nine games remaining and if they're as good as they think they are, now would be a good time to prove it.

"We knew we would be in this spot. We knew there would be a time," Maurice said, "when we would have to play our very best hockey at the most critical time and it's (now) the 10 last games of the season."

This team can not afford a repeat of last year's death march along Rue Saint Antoine.

"I don't think we worry about what happened last year, what happened before, or what happened 10 years ago," goaltender Andrew Raycroft said.

He's like Alfred E. Neuman: "What Me Worry?" As Raycroft noted, a lot of them weren't even around last year -- or for many of those other times the team stepped in the doggie-do.

Not to mention, the Leafs actually have won twice this season in Buffalo.

The Leafs will try to do all the usual things teams do to put a stick in the spokes of the speedy, free-wheeling Sabres through the neutral zone. They're going to be aggressive and limit their time and space Carlo Colaiacovo said, and they're going to have to stay out of the penalty box.

"We have to make them play our game," Colaiacovo said.

Nothing new about any of that.

What happens in the dresssing room before the games might have just as much to do with the final outcome. Peca notes:

"The veteran guys have learned from experience and we're trying to get the message across in the locker room before the game that everyone has to do their part. We need the younger guys to be opportunistic ... go out and take charge. I think we're coming along in that regard with our younger guys taking responsibility and leading the way down the road."


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