TORONTO -- When the Toronto Maple Leafs tell you their season isn't lost yet, it might be worth a listen.
They do, after all, know more about losing than just about any other organization in professional sports.
Decades of futility have taught them to recognize better than anyone when all hope is lost.
And they're saying it isn't this year, not yet, anyway
"There's always a chance till the numbers say there isn't," said Toronto defenceman Ian White, adding last night's loss to Edmonton, their first regulation defeat in almost a month, isn't going to ruin those good vibes. "We've been having fun here, working hard as a group and getting points. If we keep on doing it it's going to get closer and closer and hopefully close enough that we can make the hurdle."
A meaningful stretch drive seemed impossible in mid January. Left for dead after a 2-8 slump dropped them five games under .500 and well off the Eastern Conference playoff pace, the Leafs went nuts, losing in regulation just six times in the 23 games since.
"It feels like we've really bonded here, guys are getting along and having a great time together and enjoying playing the game," said White.
Rookie defenceman Luke Schenn watched this thing start with a snowflake and build into a giant snowball picking up momentum with every win.
"Everyone comes together when you win and feels a lot better about themselves when they come to the rink," he said. "Everyone picks each other up. Winning makes things a lot easier at the rink. The last couple of weeks we've strung a couple together and it's been the funnest part of the season.
"We realize we're still pretty far behind and we're going to have to win most of our games coming up, but who knows? The main thing is there's no quit in here."
Even if a large segment of their fan base is actually hoping they would quit, so the Leafs can sink in the standings and rise up in the draft order.
The playoff chase is one thing, but the city and franchise have the bigger picture in mind, new president and general manager Brian Burke's long-term plan.
That's why high-end prospects like 20-year-old winger Jiri Tlusty and 22-year-old goalie Justin Pogge remain in the minors and aren't up for the stretch drive.
"Realistically it would have made sense to bring up Jiri Tlusty because he's dominated in the American League for six weeks, but we want to see him dominate in the AHL for the rest of the season and hopefully the playoffs," said head coach Ron Wilson. "That might ensure that he's a more complete player when next season comes around.
"I think it's important that we have a player three years from now that's a better player than he would be than if we threw him under the bus right now.
"This isn't about putting people in before they're ready and maybe destroying careers. We've seen that happen a lot, and over the years we saw it happen a lot here, too."
Having Burke at the helm instills a confidence the franchise didn't have before.
"You know he's making the right calls up there and he's doing everything he can to help us win games," said White. "That does give us a lot of confidence knowing he's got your back. He's going to do whatever it takes to make this organization better."