The Leastern Conference

KEN FIDLIN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

There comes a time when patience turns into wishful thinking.

Is Maple Leaf ownership exercising patience with its struggling hockey team -- and, more to the point, its coach and its general manager -- because they believe they are better than they've shown? Or does Maple Leaf ownership believe something that simply isn't true?

Complicating the issue is the parity (mediocrity?) that exists in the Eastern Conference. After their loss to Washington yesterday, the Ottawa Senators had a nine-point lead at the top of the standings. The next 13 teams are bunched within eight points.

Washington, for example could theoretically go from 14th place into the third seed by winning four games in a row. The Leafs could jump from 13th in the conference to fourth with just three wins. In that kind of traffic jam, is it wrong-headed thinking to stick with the status quo a little longer? That's a tough call and Leaf ownership has never been good at making the tough call.

In the absence of goalie Vesa Toskala, who established himself as the No. 1 goaltender in the month leading up to Christmas, the Leafs have regressed, last night's shootout win over the lamentable Lightning notwithstanding. Indeed, Toskala's status as the team's backstop has only been reconfirmed since he went out with a nagging groin injury two weeks ago. In his case, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

The Leafs had developed some team confidence playing in front of Toskala but that confidence has disintegrated with Andrew Raycroft filling in. Raycroft's penchant for giving up juicy rebounds has the Leaf defence, skittish at the best of times, playing scared. Last night that same apprehension was transferred to Scott Clemmensen, who played well, but not quite well enough to hold a 3-2 lead in the dying seconds of the third period.

As bad as the Leafs have been, the Lightning have been worse. Like the Leafs, their problem has been goaltending. Last night, Karri Ramo, in only his fifth game with Tampa, gave them a good first period but faded in a three-goal second period, then stood on his head in the third but was beaten twice in the shootout.

Despite the win, the Leafs have now lost six of their last eight and Toskala can't get better fast enough. He's returned to practice this week but don't expect to see him tomorrow in Pittsburgh. More likely Saturday at home against the Flyers.

Next week, Toronto has three games in four days on the west coast before coming back east to face several Eastern Conference playoff rivals.

There's nothing to indicate that things are going to loosen up at all in the Leastern Conference where only the Senators have distinguished themselves.

It's going to be a grind right down to the wire. There are only eight playoff spots but nobody, even the Lightning, has fallen far off the pace. Tampa Bay could get back in the hunt with this group with a couple of decent weeks of work.

Leaf coach Paul Maurice shuffled up his lacklustre deck of players and dealt out a winning hand last night, redistributing his talent to be able to roll four lines. That's a good strategy against Tampa which leans heavily on its handful of skill players but possesses by far the worst road record in the league (3-13-2). Inevitably, they tire and are easy pickings down the stretch in most games.

Last night, though, the Lightning took it right to the Leafs in the third period and Toronto was extraordinarily lucky to escape with the win.

Under the circumstances, having lost six of their previous seven, the Leafs needed a win in the worst way. And that's what they got. Hanging on for a victory over the worst outfit in the conference is hardly a ringing endorsement for the Leafs. They still are a broken organization that needs some serious fixing before they can ever be considered anything more than ordinary.

They may even rally strongly enough in the next few months to make the playoffs but that is hardly an end in itself. As far as we know, they don't schedule parades down Yonge Street simply for making the playoffs.

Forty years removed from the last truly important hockey moments in this town, there is every reason to believe the drought will last another 40 unless Leaf ownership can bring itself to face reality.


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