Maple Leafs battling back from woeful start

Rob Longley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:50 AM ET

EDMONTON - Given that hard work should be the minimum job expectation of a professional athlete, Brian Burke isn’t prone to applauding effort without results.

But now that his team has somehow clawed its way into the playoff picture after a hopeless, hapless start, the Maple Leafs general manager can accentuate the positive in good conscience.

“Given our start, it’s actually pretty impressive,” Burke said yesterday as his team travelled from Pittsburgh to Alberta for games this week against the Oilers and Flames.

“I don’t generally believe in giving a team credit for shoveling hard when they dug the hole to start, but the group has worked very hard.”

Considering that they were all but left for dead after losing their first eight games and 12 of 13, the Leafs turnaround has been impressive by the recent standards of the forlorn franchise.

With a win against the struggling Oilers tomorrow, Toronto would hit the midway marker of the season with 39 points, one more than at the same spot last year.

In hockey markets that qualify for the post season more than occasionally, that’s still grossly underachieving. But the hard work helping to steadily offset the rotten start.

Remember the ugly math after that stutter start from the gate? Suddenly it doesn’t sound so bad.

To reach the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, the Leafs will need to pick it up, obviously. But to match Montreal’s 93 points - which claimed the final spot in the Eastern Conference this past spring - the Leafs need 56 points in their remaining 42 games or an average of 1.33 per start.

In their previous 20 games, the Leafs have earned 25 points or 1.25 per and what once was a prohibitive long shot suddenly has mathematical hope as the team has hovered between three and five points out of the final spot in recent weeks.

“We went into the Christmas break knowing that every point is going to count from here on in,” Leafs enforcer Colton Orr said yesterday, shortly after the team touched down in the snowy city. “We definitely look like a different team from the beginning of the season.”

There are still holes with this team, to be sure.

Goaltending and defensive play has lacked in consistency, a big reason the Leafs 3.42 goals against average is lower than only the Carolina Hurricanes. But through 41 games of the previous season, the Leafs GAA was 3.48.

Then there is the deplorable record in extra time. The Leafs have just one win from the 10 times games have gone to OT, squandered points you just know will cause anguish down the stretch.

Fuelling optimism are the Leafs’ performances against some of the league’s top guns. A pair of wins earlier against the Capitals were followed up by Sunday’s effort against Pittsburgh, a prime example of the work ethic Burke admires.

Tired from an overtime loss to the Habs the previous night, the Leafs gutted out a 4-3 road win against the Stanley Cup champs.

“A win (Sunday) is important because we had several opportunities to pack it in, and we didn’t,” Burke said.

A year ago, the Leafs marked the midway point of the season with one of their worst stretches, losing eight of nine between games 40 and 48.

If coach Ron Wilson’s team is to avoid such a fate, the push has to begin now.

A week in Alberta which began with an off-day yesterday, continues tomorrow against an Oilers team that is one of only three in the league with fewer points than Toronto. And if the Leafs are serious about making a run, no longer can they afford to negate wins against teams near the top of a conference with losses against one at the bottom.

Otherwise, an “A” for effort still doesn’t make the grade.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


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