Leafs to be tested

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:31 AM ET

Before anyone on Bay St. gets carried away making big plans for April, keep in mind the following:

- The Maple Leafs' apparent return to playoff contention must be measured against their high number of games played -- more than any team in the conference, except the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes. The New York Islanders, the team Toronto passed by a point for eighth spot on Tuesday, has two games in hand on Toronto.

- The Leafs' last three wins came against teams in similar circumstances, all below the playoff line, trying to find some traction. The next two games, this evening in New York and Saturday at home against the Boston Bruins, feature teams at or near first place in their division, a more accurate test of where the Leafs stand.

- Toronto's team goals-against average still ranked 30th in the league before last night at 3.23, not exactly a good post-season credential. Assuming Vesa Toskala comes back to earth at some point, Andrew Raycroft will have to start winning many big games when called upon, not in piecemeal fashion.

- The all-important power play remains stalled, second last in the league with a 12.6% success rate and 5-for-50 on the road.

- All that risky derring-do with the puck has not been totally cleared up. The giveaways on Tuesday against Nashville were scored 19-9 Leafs.

- Sorry, but fourth-liner Wade Belak's first goal in four years does not mean the Leafs have balanced scoring. They're nearing 21/2 productive lines now, but are still too reliant on Mats Sundin.

All that said, the tidings of comfort and joy washing over the dressing room in early December are understandable.

As the media and the Leafs fan base built a funeral pyre for the general manager and coach, the team made good on taking full responsibility and earned seven of a possible eight points.

TROUBLE

"A bit of trouble can pull a team together," winger Alex Steen said yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "We started shortening our goals (in the standings). We realized it was a long season. Now some bounces are going our way and Vesa is playing great."

Nik Antropov says the Leafs stopped being slaves to the standings after they came back from a disastrous Western road trip on Nov. 25 and near the bottom of the East.

"I've said all year to look at games one by one, because the only time we should be looking hard at the standings is the last 15 games," Antropov said. "Then you can see exactly what you have to do."

The Leafs already have split two games against the Rangers with the visiting team victorious. Most Leafs were happy not to be bombarded with Sean Avery questions yesterday, now that the Rangers' super pest is out with a wrist injury, incurred in the Nov. 10 fight with Darcy Tucker.

That bout capped a night of ugliness at the ACC in warmups and in the penalty box that resulted in fines for both teams, as well as Avery and Tucker. But coach Paul Maurice sounded a little disappointed that Avery will be in the seats tonight.

"Players like that kind of add something to the game, make it more interesting," Maurice said.


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