Never a dull Leafs moment

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

It is just far-fetched enough in this crazy, tumultuous, and controversial Maple Leafs season that making the playoffs no is longer out of the question.

Actually, with all that has gone on, a near calendar of calamity, the Leafs may be just astonishing enough to finish eighth in the Eastern Conference.

Leafs coach Paul Maurice, who isn't much into performing autopsies on teams that are still on life support, does admit he has never experienced a season like this one. How could he have?

Even his friends in the coaching fraternity, who watch with amazement all that is Toronto hockey, have brought up the fact that about a decade worth of dilemma has been packed into seven months of Maple Leafs turmoil and tragedy.

The foreshadowing of a season gone wrong came in the summer when Mark Bell, expected to be the third-line centre, was sentenced to six months in jail in California. His sentence, which is due to begin at the end of this season, was piled on to by the National Hockey League, with a lengthy suspension.

So much for the third-line centre.

ROUGH SEPTEMBER

That was in August. In September, the Leafs determined that their projected second-line centre, Kyle Wellwood (and whose idea was that?) and a top four defenceman, Carlo Colaiacovo, would not be ready to begin the season, or in the case of one of the players, resume the season.

In October, already down three bodies, and with the season about to begin fresh, the big acquisition of the summer, winger Jason Blake, announced he had been diagnosed with leukemia. Blake, bravely maintaining that his health was fine, never seemed to fit in right with the Leafs.

Early in the season, Blake called Ted Nolan "the best coach in the NHL" and referred to Rick DiPietro as a "future Vezina Trophy winner." He never mentioned Maurice when talking about the best coach in hockey.

And just about that time, Maurice was trying to figure out how to rotate Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft in goal, an argument that became moot in only a matter of minutes.

And all that happened, just before the rookie, Jiri Tlusty, was exposed, having taken naked photos of himself, which have since been circulated on the Internet.

By then, it was only November.

Or to quote the eloquent and amusing former Leaf, Wade Belak: "You could probably make a movie of this year already and it's only November, with all the topics and headlines. I think this team should be located in LA with the stars, with the gossip magazines. I guess it's part of playing in Toronto. It think it's just getting worse every year I've played here."

This is a season unlike any before it. With suspensions, prison, cancer and naked photos. And that was just the first half. "There's been a lot to deal with," Maurice said.

All that was before this calendar year began, before Chad Kilger was excused for personal reasons and eventually traded away, before John Ferguson's hiring was called a mistake and his firing was not, before Cliff Fletcher temporarily emerged, before the "No Trade Five" didn't go anywhere.

So how have the Leafs been able to endure all this and still not emerge with a shot at Steven Stamkos?

Two reasons: 1) this team understands and accepts misfortune better than most; 2) Mats Sundin's star shines brighter than ever before.

"I think our captain is the key piece in all of this," Maurice said. "He handles them back in the room."

And if the Leafs had a lesser captain?

"You would have seen a lot more people running for cover."

As of last night, the Leafs were six points out of a playoff spot, with eighth-placed Philadelphia having played one fewer game. Tonight, when the Leafs play host to the New Jersey Devils, here is what they are up against. Philadelphia plays Buffalo -- and somebody's getting points there -- the Rangers play the Islanderes -- and somebody's getting points there -- and the Leafs need to find a way to make up ground when the teams ahead of them are guaranteed points.

The odds say they have next to no chance of making the playoffs, but after all they've been through, you have to say, to hell with the odds. This team has no business being in the race, but if they're not going to bottom out, the least they could do is make the playoffs, preferably in a series against Montreal.


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