January evaluation for JFJ

Toronto Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. speaks at the ACC. (Toronto Sun/Greg Henkenhaf)

Toronto Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. speaks at the ACC. (Toronto Sun/Greg Henkenhaf)

LANCE HORNBY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 11:31 AM ET

John Ferguson appears safe until January, but the same can't be said of the Maple Leafs' playoff hopes.

Teams that can't string two wins together have short life spans where the top eight in the conference are concerned and as well as it played Thursday in Atlanta, Toronto must follow it up here tonight against Pittsburgh.

The Leafs only have one set of back-to-back wins this season and instead of building on a shutout win over the Ottawa Senators two weeks ago today, dropped four games in a row and triggered a feeding frenzy to have Ferguson fired as general manager. That talk cooled considerably Thursday, when Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of the board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. and not thought of as the GM's booster, indicated from the league meetings in California that the GM will be evaluated by his board early in the new year.

"Off with their heads...that's not the way we operate," Tanenbaum told reporters in Pebble Beach. "I'm patient enough to wait out the next while."

At Lakeshore Lions Arena, the players were happy to have Ferguson's job status pushed to the back burner for at least a few days.

"We need to keep winning games and not worry about that kind of talk," goaltender Andrew Raycroft said "Bottom line, we have to take care of stuff on the ice. All this supposed 'heat' on us will still be there in the first game of next year, too."

Coach Paul Maurice put all players on the ice yesterday, not wanting any mental slips after the club's 4-2 road win on Thursday. But having gained three of a possible four points this week, Maurice senses his players regaining their composure, especially when playing defensive hockey.

CONFIDENCE

"No doubt that your biggest gaffes with the puck are equated with confidence," the coach said. "When you're not confident, you take that half second too long."

The Leafs are averaging a respectable 25 shots against the past nine games, but have just two wins.

"The first-period shots against are (the most notable drop)," Maurice said. "We come into the game with a good defensive mindset and that's critical. There are good things creeping into our game, but we have to eliminate the things that have plagued us."

After a week, Maurice was even willing to forgive the calamity in Arizona, when the Leafs gave up four early goals in the 5-1 loss that caused much of this week's grief.

"We played at 7:30 one night in Dallas and then 5 p.m. (against Phoenix) in a different time zone," Maurice said. "That was not conducive to moving your legs."

Two Leafs wingers are knocking on the door to get back in the lineup tonight, Alexei Ponikarovsky (groin) and Jiri Tlusty (collarbone), with Ponikarovsky closer to return.

But the Leafs have not suffered the past two games with Wade Belak and John Pohl back in the lineup. Belak boxed his way to a decision over Atlanta's Eric Boulton.

"Wade makes Mark Bell and Darcy Tucker more effective," Maurice said of the other noted Leaf pugilists. "They don't have to be the first line (of fighters)."


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