Leafs in battle for 29th spot

Leafs winger Jason Blake and head coach Ron Wilson chat during practice yesterday. (Sun Media/Greg...

Leafs winger Jason Blake and head coach Ron Wilson chat during practice yesterday. (Sun Media/Greg Henkenhaf)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

The basement door is open, with a sliver of light peeking through the crack.

The Maple Leafs can see it. An escape from the NHL outhouse is there for the taking.

All that is needed is a victory tonight over the Carolina Hurricanes at the RBC Center in Raleigh and the Leafs will find themselves in 29th spot in a 30-team league.

Hey, folks, you have to learn how to crawl before you walk.

And for the Leafs, mired at the bottom of the standings since the beginning of the season, any step up is monumental right now.

If you want to nit-pick, the Leafs, tied at seven points with the free-falling Hurricanes, technically are ahead of Paul Maurice's club because Toronto holds a game in hand.

STATS GEEKS

Truth be told, that's more of an argument for the stats geeks.

In reality, win and you're in. In 29th place, that is.

To be fair, the Leafs come to Tobacco Road with all the momentum. They have collected points in five consecutive games and, prior to that, looked OK in losses to the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers.

The 'Canes, meanwhile, come limping into the contest having gone 0-7-3 in their past 10 and missing their most talented player, Eric Staal, due to injury.

Coach Ron Wilson's game plan: Strip the 'Canes of their confidence early.

"I think, obviously, you want to get a jump on them early, if you can," Wilson said yesterday. "Fan that negative atmosphere they probably have in their mind. It's no different than us. I think that's what you want to do. When you see a wounded animal you jump all over him."

Easier said than done.

This is a Leafs team, remember, that did not score the opening goal of any outing until Game No. 12 of the season, on Saturday night in Montreal. Their euphoria didn't last long. About three minutes later, the Canadiens tied the game on a bad angle shot that deflected in off goalie Vesa Toskala, setting the stage for the Habs' 5-4 shootout victory.

Wilson knows his team is not going to explode out of the gates with an offensive barrage. Scoring the opening goal would suffice.

Said Wilson: "We're not good enough to say: 'We're going to score three goals in the first period.' We're in last place in the league. We're just trying to find our way here."

In order to do that, Wilson has made a couple of roster tweaks. After sitting on the sideline as a healthy scratch for the past six games, defenceman Jeff Finger will replace Garnet Exelby on the blue line. Finger has just one assist and is minus-6 in four games, but showed last season that he can be a feisty competitor when need be.

Up front, John Mitchell gets his chance to centre speedy Phil Kessel. Kessel had a nice Leafs debut in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, leading to the question: Which is more difficult, getting 10 shots on goal, or not scoring on any of those 10?

With back-to-back games tonight in Raleigh, then at home tomorrow against the Detrroit Red Wings, Wilson would not disclose his goaltending plans. But it's a safe bet that Jonas Gustavsson will get the call in one, if not both.

Should the Leafs opt to give the struggling Toskala a start, it likely would make more sense to hand him the reigns tonight, far away from the boo-birds at the Air Canada Centre.

"You get a different feeling (at home) because, when Gustavsson makes a save, the crowd goes nuts," Wilson said. "With Vesa, it's a Bronx cheer.

"They are both capable of winning games for us."

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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