Waiting for shoes to drop

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

The Toronto Maple Leafs pass the three-quarter pole tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets and 60 games and roughly twice as many practices since Dany Heatley buried them on opening night, time is running out for head coach Paul Maurice & Co.

"I don't think what happens the next two months will decide (his fate as coach). I think they'll look at the season as a whole and what we've gone through," Maurice said after a Family Day workout.

After that opening night, Toronto ranked 15th in the conference. They go into tonight's game ranked 14th. In between have been countless misplays, ailments, the demise of a general manager and possibly a playoff spot.

Maurice has a year left on a contract but a new general manager can stickhandle around that like Sidney Crosby on Pavel Kubina. It makes him just as vulnerable as his skaters.

Yesterday, as players wonder whether interim general manager Cliff Fletcher is about to hand them a one-way ticket out of town, everyone was putting on their smiley faces.

"Probably, individually, for some of the players to block it all out and focus on the games will be a challenge," Maurice said of next week's trade deadline. "But most of the players we're talking about, it isn't the first time they're going through it. The guys with no-trade clauses earned that by being a good performer ... which means they've got enough character to get through it."

So, it was a most harmonious holiday skate. Darcy Tucker, still in the glow of a two-goal performance, didn't run at any columnists yesterday. But, then nobody's written that he's a has-been in the last 48 hours either.

Vesa Toskala says he's "comfortable" playing the rest of the season. Of course, when he was losing 7-1 to Washington and platooning with Andrew Raycroft he said he was "comfortable" too. He leaves the impression someone could put him on a bed of nails and, if there was a reporter around, he'd give him a bemused grin and insist that he was, indeed, "comfortable."

So, we'll bite: Just how does a team keep its comfort zone when it can win three like Toronto did in January and move all the way up to 13th. Or beat Detroit, Montreal and Ottawa, and not gain an inch?

"Obviously your spirits do go down a little. You win games, everybody else wins and it's hard to make up ground," Jason Blake said. "This is a big week. You don't want to be in a situation where you have to win while you're counting on other people to lose. Right now that's what we're facing."

How did this happen? It's not just injuries. Nik Antropov has hit the 20-goal plateau for the first time this year but otherwise, other than Mats Sundin, nobody is having a "career" year. So, it shouldn't be surprising that Toronto's longest win streak is four.

Even Maurice admits there have been difficult times keeping spirits up.

"Reality is that when things aren't going well you can't be positive," he said. "You try to fight your way out. Like when you get a game like against Boston, not panic after the first 20 minutes. I think you look at the leadership in your room to do that."

That would be Sundin. "The big guy is always the guy. He's the voice as well as the face of this hockey team and he handles that room very well," Maurice said.

Despite Sundin's quiet public demeanor, those clubhouse dissertations can, Maurice said, be surprisingly frank. "What you see on TV and in the interviews isn't necessarily true. When the door closes there's a lot that goes on back there that nobody gets to hear or see. And, it's not disharmony or dysfunction when someone is letting her fly. It's the natural intensity of the game. The intensity in that locker room would surprise a lot of people because when you're getting beat the assumption is you're not trying."

Trying. The Leafs have certainly been that -- in, unfortunately, more ways than one.


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