Pride on the line for Leafs

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:34 AM ET

For four months, the Maple Leafs worked with what they believed was their best lineup, only to dig a playoff grave.

Now that they're in dismantling mode, they are sending anything on skates with the right contract over the boards and they keep getting points. Sure, it has screwed up their draft positioning, but there is pride on the line for incumbents and jobs to be won next year for newcomers.

Just think where they would be if they could pick up two marooned minor leaguers every game, dangle NHL contracts and unleash them as they did a motivated Martin Gerber and Jeff Hamilton in a 2-1 win in Washington on Thursday.

More chances are sure to come as new defenceman Erik Reitz gets his foot out of a cast and Hamilton gets more ice in the wake of the Nik Antropov trade and Niklas Hagman's longer-than-expected recovery from a concussion a week ago.

"You have opportunities now to show management what you can do," coach Ron Wilson said yesterday. "We'll put in anybody who gives 100% into lots of situations.

"There's a lot of hockey players out there and we have a pretty good environment in the room right now (after points in eight consecutive games). Obviously, a lot of our success recently hinges upon great goaltending and Gerbs continued what Vesa Toskala had been doing. With goaltending like that, anything is possible."

Well, it's a little late in the bake sale judging to claim you have the best apple pie, and Toskala's struggles up to mid-season cost the team dearly. But don't tell the players that the next 17 games are meaningless. They are nine points out with three teams to pass, but Gerber seemed insulted at suggestions that his new friends are in a no-win situation.

"It's a great group and no one gives up anything here," the Swiss stopper said. "We want to battle for everything out there and see what happens at the end. I'm very fortunate to be picked up by this organization."

He repaid them Thursday, with a couple of jaw-dropping saves among the 38 shots he faced.

"We're talking about Marty like he stunk for 10 years," Wilson said, scoffing at the goalie's detractors. "His save percentage is better than our (other three) goalies combined. It's a chance for him to extend his career."

Playing for the Ottawa Senators' affiliate in Binghamton, the 34-year-old was wondering if he would see an NHL rink again.

"I went to the minors and got to play again, but I was wishing to get back. As time goes on, you begin to have doubts. But it's one game and you don't prove anything with one game."

The Leafs lost arguably their two best forwards when Dominic Moore and Antropov were traded, and then they shut down Toskala for hip and groin surgery. But instead of the white flag, the Leafs gave John Mitchell a good run at centre (three points in two games), took Gerber off waivers and signed Hamilton, plugging him into a line with Mitchell and leading scorer Jason Blake.

"It's the way the game works," Hamilton said. "You just keep your head and hope you get a break. Hopefully I caught one here."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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