Leafs to get boost

Darcy Tucker is close to returning to the Leafs after skating at practice yesterday. (SUN...

Darcy Tucker is close to returning to the Leafs after skating at practice yesterday. (SUN MEDIA/Michael Peake)

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

About the highest numbers the Maple Leafs have rolled up in four years of missing playoffs or failing in the first round are in the column of man games lost to injury.

They lost 336 last year, 257 in 2005-06, almost 300 before the lockout and at least 200 every year since '02-03. They even had a costly injury controversy dog them through the lockout year with Ed Belfour and Owen Nolan. Contrast that with Tampa Bay, a team that routinely has fewer than 100.

Though injuries are an excuse many losing teams are loathe to mention and the Leafs have won some significant games with spare parts, it's only fair that all are present before media and fans call in the burial detail.

The Leafs already have lost 50 games this year, but this weekend, for one of the few times in the John Ferguson era, the Leafs could be near 100% healthy. Kyle Wellwood and Mark Bell came back on Tuesday, Bryan McCabe and Darcy Tucker are hopeful of the same by Saturday's game against the Rangers and there's even talk of hard luck Carlo Colaiacovo getting off the bike and re-joining practice next week.

"It's hard to take four or five guys out of a lineup and not have it affect things," coach Paul Maurice said yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena.

"We've got 15 forwards practising now and if Darcy returns, then it's get ready or don't play (for somebody)."

Maurice is counting on internal competition helping to spark a team that has won back-to-back just once this season and is coming off a 5-1 stinging in Ottawa.

Tucker's diligent work in solo skates to get comfortable with his right knee brace has paid off.

He was on right wing with centre Bell and Chad Kilger yesterday, a trio with potential to be a physical presence tomorrow in Buffalo or at home Saturday against the Rangers.

For Tucker, missing seven games did have one benefit.

"I watched from up in the pressbox and got a totally different perspective," Tucker said. "When I was hurt last year, I didn't go up there because I was in the room (exercising)."

Tucker's comment was an interesting one, given that players often say the game looks distorted and too easy from up top.

"It gives you the opportunity to step back, to see plays develop," Tucker said. "You see that team defence is all hard work."

McCabe has had a groin injury before, so he was careful to test his conditioning before stating optimistically to play this weekend.

"We have to get our chemistry going again," McCabe said of the Leafs' woes and his awful personal start, two goals in 10 games.

But McCabe's troubles were more acute in his own end, where a collision with his own net and an own goal were well documented last month.

"I'm coming back to help my team," he declared. "We know we can score goals, we have to keep them out of our net. If we can keep other teams to under three, we'll win some."

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THAT HURTS

Leafs man-games lost to injury:

2002-03 217

2003-04 294

2004-05 --

2005-06 257

2006-07 336

2007-08 50+


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