Re-enacting Groundhog Day?

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

That enduring 1993 film Groundhog Day features a beleaguered Bill Murray waking up to the same frustrating events over and over and over again.

Maple Leafs fans can relate.

As the members of Leafs Nation wipe the sleep out of their eyes and take a sip of their strongly brewed javas this morning, they probably feel as if they've seen this movie before.

Once again, their heroes have started to play their best hockey when the pressure, by all accounts, is off.

Once again, this late-season run likely will give an entire city a faint glimmer of post-season hope, as far-fetched as it might be.

Once again, it likely won't be enough to secure a playoff spot, given the deficit they face with just 15 games to go.

And, once again, the cynics will ask why the team just didn't tank it in order to get one of the top draft slots, leaving it with a chance to win the draft lottery and, potentially, land Sarnia Sting star Steve Stamkos.

Two seasons ago, the Leafs were humiliated in back-to-back mid-March losses to the rival Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre, pretty much booting them out of playoff contention. With outside expectations of the team lukewarm at best, the Leafs finished 9-1-2 to end up ninth in the East, nudged out for the final post-season slot by two points by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Surely a late-season swoon would have netted them a better draft pick than 13th overall.

Last season, the team scratched its way into contention with a nice March run, only to lose three of its final six games. Captain Mats Sundin and his teammates then could only watch helplessly as the New York Islanders beat the New Jersey Devils in a shootout on the final afternoon of the regular season, allowing Ted Nolan's squad to leapfrog the Leafs into eighth.

The result? Another 13th overall pick, a spot they later would trade away as part of the deal to land goalie Vesa Toskala.

Fast forward to 2008. In the past two weeks, Toskala and Sundin have combined to lead the Leafs on a 6-1-1 run, a streak that has the town quietly thinking playoffs, again.

Is this hockey's version of Groundhog Day? Is this just another big tease?

Those who feel that way officially have entered panic mode, seeing their dream of Stamkos one day wearing blue and white evaporating in front of their very eyes with every Leafs win. These are the same people who are urging coach Paul Maurice to play porous goalie Andrew Raycroft, feeling that move would ensure a funk that quickly would get Toronto back into the Stamkos sweepstakes.

Interim general manager Cliff Fletcher can only shake his head in bewilderment at anyone who actually would suggest what is, in his mind, such nonsense. There will be no tanking under his watch.

"Our players, our coaches and the five guys who refused to waive their no-trade deals, they all are showing they care about winning," Fletcher said last night upon arriving back in Toronto from his Phoenix residence, where he spent several days tying up loose ends.

"As for the draft, the key is not where you draft, but how you draft. Anaheim is a good team and it got Ryan Getzlaf (19th overall) and Corey Perry (28th) later in the first round. New Jersey is good and it got Zach Parise (17th) and Travis Zajac (20th)."

The Leafs will face the Devils twice this week, part of a stretch drive that will see Toronto play each of its 15 remaining games against Eastern opponents. Ten of those come against Northeast Division foes, so there is, potentially, the opportunity to make up ground.

Fletcher knows it won't be easy. Eight of the teams ahead of the Leafs in the standings hold at least one game in hand on Toronto.

All the while, the Leafs dropped to six points out of a playoff spot yesterday when the eighth-place Philadelphia Flyers gained a valuable one in their 5-4 overtime loss to the New York Rangers.

Is landing a playoff spot improbable? You bet. Impossible? Not when this team is this hot, thanks, in part, to Sundin and Toskala.

Fletcher says the rebuilding plans for the franchise will not change, playoffs or no playoffs. In the meantime, he will be the biggest cheerleader in the house, pulling for his Leafs make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

As fans of the 1969 Miracle Mets used to say: "You Gotta Believe."


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