Time for Leafs to regroup

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

If the Maple Leafs get anywhere close to 41 points by the halfway mark of the regular season, they definitely will have earned them.

It will require beating the Montreal Canadiens tonight, with the Air Canada Centre dotted with Habs jerseys, going to Pittsburgh tomorrow to knock off the defending Stanley Cup champion and taking the opener of their Western Canadian road trip in Edmonton, where the Oilers would love to get Pat Quinn a win against his old team.

Accomplishing all that would still leave them a point shy of 41 in 41 games, but go a long way toward erasing concerns that they have fallen back into some familiar bad habits. Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders capped five pre-Christmas contests in which the Leafs started clipping the guard rail on the road to recovery, notably the fourth silent night in a row from Phil Kessel. The lack of forechecking fortitude on the Island was particularly alarming.

Yes, they've come far from their 0-7-1 start and just one win in their first 13 games and drew some stiff competition before the holiday. But if Toronto can't steal the odd regulation win from the Buffalo Sabres or a good Western club, does it expect to make a serious playoff charge?

"We've played a lot of hockey and will be playing more with the Olympics (compressing the schedule)," alternate captain Tomas Kaberle said. "We just have to regroup. Having a back-to-back first doesn't make it any easier for us."

The Leafs will be restarting their engine from 14th place in the East, five points out of the playoffs and six Eastern teams to catch. Remember, this is a team whose leading scorer is a defenceman and best forward is slumping. As well, it has not come back to win a game in which it has trailed after 40 minutes.

"I'm not producing, not playing well. I have to be better," Kessel said of his four-game flatline.

Fatigue has been a factor with the Leafs playing at least every second day from Nov. 30 up to the Isles game, but that is a league-wide lament this Olympic year.

Centre Matt Stajan hopes he, Kessel and Alexei Ponikarovsky rediscover their chemistry after a couple of days off and take advantage of playing just four times between tonight and Jan. 5.

"Things aren't always going to just roll easily," Stajan said. "We had a good stretch where things were going well for us. It's not for lack of trying, we're getting our chances. They just aren't going in."

The rosiest projection is in goal, where Jonas Gustavsson is erasing doubts he can take and hold the No. 1 job from the wildly inconsistent Vesa Toskala. Gustavsson's past four games and 11 periods have yielded just five regulation goals.

SHOWING HEART

The rookie fully intends to stay for the whole 60 minutes tonight against the Habs. The previous time the two teams met, on Dec. 1 at the Bell Centre, an accelerated heartbeat led to a trip to the hospital after one period and a second ablation process.

The Monster has been quick to embrace all things that go with playing for Toronto.

"It was a great atmosphere in Montreal the last time ... But I don't think about that. I try to push myself all the time, if it's just 100 people in the stands or 25,000."

Sage advice from the kid for the rest of the team as the halfway mark approaches.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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