NEWARK -- John Ferguson disappeared into the cold New Jersey night to the team bus, refusing to talk about what could have been his last game as general manager of the Maple Leafs.
He hasn't spoken to the media at large in days, but you know he must be thinking whether he would be walking the plank this week if his team had played the entire first half of the season as it did the past five games.
Two one-goal losses to Cup contenders San Jose and New Jersey book-ended a three-game win streak in which several of his controversial acquisitions suddenly found their legs. It has probably given the board of directors of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., small pause for thought.
But after the team plane touched down at Pearson last night, Leaf Nation began watching the skies for Cliff Fletcher's flight.
"You want to do well for the people who believe in you," said goaltender Andrew Raycroft, who had one of his better starts last night in a 3-2 close-call loss to the Devils. "John has had a lot of faith in me, giving me the ball last year and keeping me here this year.
"We feel like we've been in every game (since a Jan. 10 defeat in Los Angeles brought fan and media wrath on MLSEL). We have an idea of the storm going on. We feel like we're in it together and we have to get out of it together."
But by the time the Leafs get to back-to-back midweek games against the Washington Capitals, it's expected Fletcher will have returned with his wife from a Mexican holiday and reached a power-distribution agreement with Richard Peddie, the club's president and CEO. Fletcher wants the same carte blanche in hockey operations that he had upon arriving in 1991. And whatever happens, you know the NHL wants the Leafs to clear this thing up before there is a danger of them hogging the Canadian media spotlight at the all-star game in Atlanta this weekend.
The Hall of Famer Fletcher likely has not been is siesta mode the past week, sizing up what needs to be done in the short and long term.
Yet, all of the swirling speculation of a change at the top seems to have had a galvanizing effect on the Leafs the past 10 days. Alex Steen's short-side shot at the buzzer yesterday almost gave the Leafs an unlikely three-goal comeback against the air-tight Devils.
"If we sit and wait and follow what's going on off the ice, we're in trouble," captain Mats Sundin warned. "I see at least some signs of a system. If we put a good two weeks together, we're back in the playoff race."
Coach Paul Maurice, whose fate is tied to Ferguson's, has kept the team hanging on to its playoff thread.
"After the game, John is chin up, front and centre and I'm trying to be that way, too," Maurice said. "When you look at playing four games in six nights, I like the way we've competed."
Vesa Toskala and winger Jason Blake have been the most noticeably resurgent players in Ferguson's stable the past few games and last night was Raycroft's chance. A culprit in many key losses this year and unable to carry the Leafs to a playoff spot in his first full season, Raycroft has come to represent Ferguson's questionable trade acumen and team vision.
He played his first game since the first-period debacle in L.A., though had yesterday's second of back-to-backs not been a 5 p.m., start, Maurice would have stuck with Toskala, who had a busy second and third periods beating the Sabres the night before at home.
But the coach went the cautious route with his No. 1 and will now use Toskala in both ends against the Caps heading into the break. The Caps are a point ahead of the 14th-place Leafs heading in to the week.