Sunny days for Leafs

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

FORT LAUDERDALE -- The Maple Leafs had perhaps more incentive than usual to come up with one of their best outings of the season Saturday night in Montreal.

Start with the pending visit to a five-star resort hotel hard by the Atlantic and an off day to begin a working week in Florida.

Then there was the nasty business of the 5-0 loss to Buffalo a couple of nights earlier which triggered some sharp criticism from management, particularly regarding the inconsistent play of goaltender Vesa Toskala.

Just as a brief trip to Florida won't cure all ills, neither will a single 5-2 win, even if it came against the rival Canadiens. But at least the Leafs can catch a break from the doldrums in what has been an increasingly difficult season.

"I was impressed with our effort, especially Vesa's," Leafs general manager Brian Burke said yesterday. "He was terrific, as was Jason Blake."

Say what you will about Burke's brashness, but at least he's willing to dish out the good with the bad even though the latter screams louder in headlines. Burke and coach Ron Wilson had been sharply critical of Toskala's play and the easy-going Finn responded with one of his better recent efforts.

Blake certainly did as well, scoring a pair of goals to give him 19 on the season, four more than he had in the entire 2007-08 campaign.

Still, as any realistic shot at making the playoffs fades by the week, the remaining games will be a challenge for the Leafs, so why not try to enjoy the two-game Florida break with games against the Panthers tomorrow and Tampa on Thursday?

Before they get back to work, there was a little fun in the sun to be had yesterday. For some of the coaches, golf was on the itinerary and many of the players were heading out for a day on the ocean.

At night, first-year Leafs Luke Schenn, John Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin were to be on the hook for what promised to be a rich tab at a rookie dinner that wasn't going to take place at your run of the mill roadhouse, featuring twist-top vintages of wine.

Those are the type of team-building exercises Burke favours, even if a good chunk of those involved may not be around next season.

"Playing against Montreal is always a big game and we knew we were coming down here to Florida for a couple days as well," Leafs forward Niklas Hagman said at the team hotel before checking out the sights of Fort Lauderdale Beach with Toskala. "Obviously that gives us a little extra too."

Feel free to wonder about the need for millionaire athletes to manufacture motivation, though the Leafs are by no means alone in that reality of human nature.

And it certainly promises to be an interesting few weeks for the team as the trade deadline approaches and the most meaningful decisions yet by the new regime may be made.

Burke acknowledged yesterday that "talks are heating up," and that he is "optimistic we will get a few things done" by the March 4 deadline.

As for Wilson, he must shake his head after seeing the difference in effort out of the gate the past two games. In Buffalo, the Leafs were outshot 12-5 in the first period. In Montreal they had an 18-5 edge on the Habs after one.

"The whole team played really strong (Saturday) compared to the Buffalo game, I would say the total opposite," Hagman said. "First of all, we shouldn't play that bad of a game (as they did against the Sabres) but it's good we can bounce back. Now we have to get a little more consistency to our game."

And take a ray of sunshine wherever they can get it.


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