Redemption waiting in next three games

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:27 AM ET

The Maple Leafs had a good day yesterday.

True, they didn't play.

But, during the past two days of practice nobody hurt each other, the team worked on its defence, Alexei Ponikarovsky is back and, at last check, nobody drowned in the shower.

After Monday's meltdown in Buffalo, it apparently is also once again safe to leave Bryan McCabe and a sharp razor in the same building.

Not to mention, after opening the season with five of seven games against some of the NHL's high-octane offensive teams, the next three games should provide a clearer picture of where the Maple Leafs fortunes lie this winter.

Toronto plays Florida tonight, Chicago Saturday and winless Atlanta next Tuesday. After its bumptious beginning, all three are games it should win.

Let's be honest. Expecting this team to beat the Penguins, Sabres and Senators was a bit of a reach anyway. But if, as McCabe said yesterday "this can be a great team" it has to start by beating up on some not-so-great teams.

"There's a lot of good teams. Even Florida has a couple wins. Every team you play now in the NHL can beat you," said Kyle Wellwood, "but if you want to make the playoffs there are certain teams you have to beat up on. These are definitely winable situations."

Toronto must beat teams like Atlanta and Florida for two reasons: To make the playoffs and to silence the boobirds, who have been perched in particular on McCabe's shoulders.

" I'm not sure if rock bottom is the right term but in drawing attention to yourself at a bad time (McCabe has) seen it and done it. I think now he's feeling, 'okay, we've got to get it going.' And, I think as a whole hockey team we feel it," coach Paul Maurice said."

No time, like right now. Yesterday, the Thrashers fired coach Bob Hartley. They have scored just nine goals in six games. The Panthers have three wins, thanks mostly to goaltender Tomas Vokoun. The Blackhawks have just 10 goals.

Both the Leafs wins this season, against Montreal and the Islanders, were against teams much like the three standing between them and an ounce of redemption.

On the other hand Maurice doesn't want to the Leafs, or any pin-happy opponent with an empty billboard, to get the idea the Leafs believe they're dealing with patsies in the next week. "Sometimes when you play teams that are more conservative in their approach it's also difficult to get your own offence going. That can be a dangerous way to approach games."

As evidence, the Leafs last year were a combined 3-5 against Atlanta, Florida and Chicago. Which helps explain why they went golfing early. To add to the anxiety this autumn, Toronto has held a lead in every game but, said Wellwood, "it seems we're always a goal away at the end. It puts a strain on the team."

So, what must happen?

"We haven't come out 0-6," said Maurice, referring to Atlanta, "but we're 2-3-2 and we've played five high-end offensive teams. We won the two games against the two teams we wouldn't consider high offensive teams."

In other words, the Leafs need these next three games against teams that wouldn't be considered high offensive teams.

What has to improve for that to happen? "We've got areas where we need to compete better defensively no question. First we can't spend so much time in our own end, which puts too much pressure on our D ... and when a mistake happens we're booing our D," Maurice said. "Where we've been getting hurt is in the switch-offs, leaving the front of the net. We're trying to define it more clearly. You can't put hard and fast rules and say a defenceman has to stand in front of the net because if they're cycling you'll never catch them."

So, McCabe & Co. spent the past two days working 3-on-3 down low, they worked on positioning and they talked about communicating. Oh, and there is one other thing they could do to improve the fans' sour mood.

Just win!

Do that, Maurice said, and there's no better place to play than Toronto. "Last year when we won nine at home there were times when we ... were down and the crowd carried us. But that's on us as a team, to play well ... that's where we have to get our fans again," Maurice said. "There's nights when you go home and you can't sleep. But when you win here it's also incredibly great - maybe too great."


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