It's do or die time for Buds

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:15 AM ET

The math is not at all complicated. Tonight is the Maple Leafs season.

It is that simple. You can add and subtract, multiply and divide, but the calculations remain the same.

This is one game for everything. One game to determine whether this is another failed experiment for the Leafs or whether this team has any chance of advancing to the post-season.

Tonight is a best of one against themselves and the equally desperate defending Stanley Cup champions, all at the same time.

This is the game the Leafs cannot lose.

That isn't melodrama. That isn't hype. That isn't typical Toronto over-reaction. That is the reality of this time in the season when who you play, where you play and who else happens to be playing that night factors into a larger playoff equation.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

It begins with the story of whom the Leafs must usurp.

It begins with the opponent and the surrounding circumstances.

In Toronto, the Leafs play Carolina, trailing the Hurricanes by two points and three places in the standings. The placing is even more important than the points.

The placing--and the number of teams that must be leapfrogged-- is what makes the challenge so difficult.

Should the 11th-place Leafs lose tonight, they would fall four points behind the eighth- place Hurricanes -- with six games to go.

That would leave Toronto with 82 points, Carolina with 86 points and a rather friendly schedule to end the season.

Now do the math on that: Because the Leafs can't win in any tie-breaking formula, the Leafs must over-take Carolina to make the playoffs. Trailing by four points actually translates to trailing by five. That's a five-point deficit with six games remainin.

And the Hurricanes play four of their final six games at home, one a road game tomorrow in Philadelphia, where the Flyers happen to have the most pathetic home record in hockey.

Even by splitting their games remaining, which is unlikely, Carolina would come away with six more points, bringing their total (assuming the worst possible scenario, that they beat the Leafs) to 92.

Should the Leafs lose tonight, they would not have room to lose another game (except in overtime or shootout) in their final six outings. They would pretty much have to run the table.

That is why, aside from the obvious, they are left with no alternative. Tonight is win or else.

And that's just the beginning of the permutations of this and almost every hockey night left in this irregular season. You see, while the Leafs are playing tonight, Montreal is home to the hot New York Rangers and either two or three points are available in the less than equitable National Hockey League. The Rangers, already up five points on the Leafs, are basically home and cooled off for a playoff spot. Montreal is two points ahead of Toronto. A Montreal win tonight makes the Toronto situation all the more troubling.

Following all that?

Then there's the New York Islanders, also two points ahead of Toronto. They're home tonight to the New Jersey Devils. And at the same time, the Tampa Bay Lightning, having played their way back into the playoff fight, are home to Florida.

Somebody or everybody the Leafs are trying to catch will get points tonight, which means what?

"We'll leave it for you guys to figure that out," captain Mats Sundin told a media gathering yesterday.

"There are all kinds of different aspects of it, percentages and odds.

"We don't have time to worry about that, to be honest. We have to play every game as though it's a Game 7. That's the only way we can approach this.

"If you start looking at the big picture it's easy to lose focus."

The little picture -- Game 76 of the season for the Leafs -- happens to represent the big picture.

It's win or bust, against no less than Eric Staal and the Hurricanes.

A loss in unfathomable.

An overtime point gets them nowhere.

It is that basic. It is that final.


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