Leafs need win-win situation

TERRY KOSHAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 4:23 PM ET

The regular season is comprised of 82 games in the National Hockey League, but for the Maple Leafs, the math is simple: Two matter, and 80, for now, do not.

In arrears of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by four points, the Leafs will try to catch the Boston Bruins this week in a home-and-home set that makes the other games until now look like inconsequential warmup matches.

"For sure," centre Matt Stajan said after Toronto's win in Ottawa on Saturday night when he was asked whether the Leafs' season comes down to these two games with the Bruins. "They are huge. We have to win in regulation and we are right there. We have to take care of business. It's no secret we have to win all of our games and get some help."

Six times the Leafs and Bruins have clashed this season, with each club skating off three times the victor. But the Leafs have won the past three games, including the most recent, an 8-2 thrashing of the Bruins in Beantown on March 6.

Tomorrow night, it's on at the Air Canada Centre when captain Mats Sundin could make his return from a groin injury. On Thursday night, it's back to Boston, a result that could be moot if the Leafs do not win in regulation at home.

The Leafs have 80 points, four back of the Bruins. Also ahead of Toronto are the Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers.

The Leafs might not have seen it all this season, but they are not far off. There has been the serious, including Jason Blake's cancer diagnosis in October and the firing of general manager of John Ferguson in January. And there has been the strange, including the own-goal by Bryan McCabe in overtime in Buffalo and the longest, bounciest goal in recent memory anywhere in the NHL courtesy of New York Islanders defenceman Rob Davison.

The Leafs have experienced enough extraordinary tales to add a quirky chapter to the franchise's storied history. The odds are long that they can attach a playoff addendum to the yarn, but don't tell them that.

"Hockey is a funny game," Alex Steen said. "It comes down to fighting and believing in yourself and what you are capable of doing. At one point we were in last place in the Eastern Conference and we are definitely playing like a team now."

Darcy Tucker figured the Leafs have been "playing our playoffs, so to speak, since we left San Jose." That was on Jan. 12, when the Leafs, collective tail tucked firmly between their legs, lost their fifth in a row. Written off by most at that point, the Leafs since have gone 19-10-2, never losing more than twice consecutively in that stretch.

Coach Paul Maurice acknowledged that he and his staff have taken a step back, letting the players guide themselves. But at 41, he is not much older than many of his charges, and it's obvious he has been enjoying the late run more than it has been aging him.

EXCITING

"It's exciting," said Maurice, who gave all of his players, even the injured ones, Easter Sunday off. "It's the juice of the whole operation. It's the anxiety at two in the afternoon, and then a half hour before game time everything goes to calm. It's awesome."

And it's down to two games.

"It was a huge weekend, and you want to get to those Boston games and really have them mean something," Maurice said. "This team has competed and fought and scratched and clawed. It's going to make for a more interesting week than the last."


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