Have the Maple Leafs prolonged their season or merely delayed the funeral?
They won't have to wait long to find out, meeting the Philadelphia Flyers again tonight on the heels of last night's wild 4-3 comeback overtime win.
This was far from the regulation result the Leafs needed to open this home-and-home set. Seven points behind eighth-place Philly is worse than six with just 11 games to go. But proper perspective went right out the window for the Air Canada Centre crowd when Toronto staged its first three-goal third-period rally of the year, with two goals from much maligned defenceman Pavel Kubina, including the winner from a behind-the-net bank shot.
"We're alive, that's all you need," said coach Paul Maurice after exiting the bench with a few victorious fist pumps.
The Leafs had plenty of help on the out-of-town scoreboard, with the New York Islanders and Atlanta Thrashers falling behind them and even a loss for the seventh-place Boston Bruins keeping them just ahead of the Flyers.
Too bad the Leafs still have to win almost all their remaining 11 games to make it work, but they will fight another game at least. They'll be looking to sweep consecutive games for the first time this year tonight at the Wachovia Center where the Flyers' mental makeup is now in doubt.
A couple of Flyers smashed sticks in frustration in the runway after Kubina's goal, cursing themselves for getting too lax with a 3-0 lead, allowing the Leafs 55 shots. The visitors rattled the Leafs with big hits early on, but backed off in the third, thinking three goals as good as four with the Leafs needing a regulation two points. That is, until Maurice signalled his intent to go for the gold by pulling Vesa Toskala with 1:12 to go.
"We have to be better right across the board tomorrow," Flyers' defenceman Jason Smith said. "Momentum changes quickly and we have to bunker down a lot better."
Scottie Upshall, Braydon Coburn and Daniel Briere scored for the Flyers.
"The toughest part was staying positive," said Jeremy Williams of the lifeless Leafs bench and the dead crowd after Briere's third-period goal. "But we got that first one and caught fire."
Mats Sundin, Kubina and then the rookie Williams with 3:41 to play, brought the building to life. With Toskala on the bench for a 6-on-4 power play, Alexei Ponikarovsky had Martin Biron down but couldn't lift it over for a regulation win.
Kubina, with forwards Matt Stajan and Darcy Tucker exhausted after a long shift, pinched deep and came from the side of Biron to get a fortunate bounce from a Flyer stick.
The Leafs still face mathematical elimination in the next week to 10 days, while the speculation regarding captain Sundin's plans for 2008-09 will become as intense as his controversial pre-trade deadline no-go stance. With his goal and assist last night, he extended his points' streak to nine games (eight goals, eight assists), while the equally important keeper for next year, Tomas Kaberle, had his 17th assist in 14 games.
The Leafs still don't deserve a piece of the post-season pie if they insist on playing catch-up hockey virtually all season, saving their best for after the deadline and giving up the first goal in their past seven outings.
However, Toskala made his 22nd consecutive start, as his mates cleared the 40-shot mark for the fourth consecutive game, trying to make his life easier. He was helpless as the Flyers scored a picture goal in the first, weaving through the defensive pairing of Bryan McCabe and Anton Stralman.
Despite all the talk about a playoff atmosphere, the crowd was late to arrive, lethargic and barely reacted to a video tribute of memorable Toronto -- Philly clashes of the past four decades. Their mood improved considerably in the final 10 minutes.