Lots at stake for Leafs, Flyers

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

Deep down inside, Paul Holmgren probably doesn't give a rat's rump about how the Maple Leafs have their collective "backs against the wall."

Why would he?

The one-time Philadelphia Flyers' pugilist-turned-general manager is too polite to use those exact words, but the message remains the same: His team is having its own problems attempting to clamp on to the eighth and final playoff spot.

"We're certainly not in a tremendous position ourselves," Holmgren said yesterday from the Flyers practice facility in New Jersey.

"We're fighting to keep winning and maintain our standing, if not better it. We are not (playoff shoo-ins) by any means.

"It should make for good games."

PLENTY OF HYPE

Upon arriving in Toronto late yesterday afternoon, the Flyers must have figured they were preparing to face the Leafs in a two-game, winner-take-all Stanley Cup final this week, given all the hype surrounding the home-and-home series between the two teams that starts tonight at the Air Canada Centre and resumes tomorrow in the City of Brotherly Loath.

For those locals who have been guzzling the blue-and-white Kool-Aid, the next 48 hours will hold the fate of the entire season for the Leafs, who start the day eight points behind the Flyers with just 12 games remaining.

The Leafs pretty much have to sweep these two encounters or you officially can start issuing the last rites.

Come to think of it, maybe they already should have started.

By sweeping the Flyers, Toronto still will be four points back of Philly with 10 games left. But this is more than a two-horse race. Four teams -- the Buffalo Sabres, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders and Florida Panthers -- are wedged between the No. 8 Flyers and No. 13 Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings.

If anything, the Flyers are feeling just as much pressure. Wouldn't you be if there were so many pursuers breathing down your vulnerable necks?

Of course, Holmgren and company might have enjoyed a little more breathing room had defenceman Tomas Kaberle been convinced to waive his no-trade clause and been part of a reported deal with the Flyers last month, a swap that allegedly would have seen young Philly forward Jeff Carter come the other way as part of the package.

The Flyers have long coveted the smooth-skating Kaberle, although his penchant for avoiding the rough stuff might not have endeared him to the rowdy Philly Phanatics who pack the Wachovia Center.

In 2001, then-GMs Pat Quinn of the Leafs and Bob Clarke of the Flyers were working on a deal that reportedly would have sent Nik Antropov, Danny Markov and a first-round pick to Philly for disgruntled star Eric Lindros. But the Flyers suspected that Markov had an ailing back and asked for Kaberle instead, scuttling any kind of Lindros-to-Toronto swap.

"It's nice when there is interest," Kaberle said of the Flyers. "But I've said it every day in the past month -- I wanted to stay here. I love it here."

Holmgren refuses to indicate how close the Flyers came to acquiring Kaberle, suggesting the topic is moot because Kaberle refused to budge.

Having himself handed out a number of no-trade clauses, including one to former Sabre Daniel Briere last summer, Holmgren understands how the hands of interim general manager Cliff Fletcher were shackled at the trade deadline.

Referring to Toronto's No-Trade Five of Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker, Mats Sundin and Pavel Kubina, Holmgren said: "Maybe it's a good thing for the Leafs these guys wanted to stay. Maybe these are guys they can build around."

And maybe, just maybe, Holmgren is glad the Kaberle deal never materialized, given the way Carter has soared of late, scoring seven goals in his past 10 games.

He is a key reason why the Flyers have gone 5-1-1 since coming off a franchise-record 10-game losing streak.

"It's neat to see how he's become a man," Holmgren said of Carter.

With stud winger Simon Gagne gone for the season and banged up forwards Mike Richards and Joffrey Lupul not making the trip to Toronto, Carter has needed to do exactly that.

There have been no shortage of hardships for Holmgren's team recently. So if anyone actually feels the Leafs have more at stake than his Flyers in the next two nights, they are sadly mistaken.


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