Playoff urgency dawning on Leafs

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

TORONTO — With his new-found control of the dressing-room sound system, Dion Phaneuf hinted he would slip in a few tunes by his favourite band, the Tragically Hip, to keep spirits up with the Maple Leafs.

Unfortunately, a song by another Canadian group, No Time by The Guess Who, seems more appropriate in the long run.

Tuesday’s 3-0 effort over New Jersey was well-earned and the new Leafs justified Brian Burke’s thunderstorm trades that cleansed the room of some negative influences. Friday’s practice at the Mastercard Centre was the most laid-back in weeks and it continued when the doors opened for a round of mostly feel-good questions from the media, reflecting Leafs Nation’s best vibe in months.

If only the timing weren’t so lousy. Another terrible January (3-10-2, making the Leafs 12-25-5 in that month since ’07-08) and the reluctance of teams to meet Burke’s trade price until almost Groundhog Day, gives the Leafs a scant 25 games to make a charge.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last post-lockout club to qualify for playoffs from as far back as the 14th-place Leafs sit now, was last year’s St. Louis Blues, who had 10 more games to work with when they jumped from last in the Western Conference to eighth on the schedule’s last day.

The gulf between the Leafs and eighth place is 10 points and six teams, all with games in hand on Toronto. Yet, no sooner had goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere said during Sunday’s introductory conference call that there was still hope, than he blanked the Devils while five of the six teams below eighth spot in the East all lost. So, who are we to ruin a good story?

“It’s not over yet,” Phaneuf declared. “Right now, we’re focused on trying to make a push towards the playoffs. Statistically, we’re a way back, but you win a few, a couple of other teams lose and you’re right there.”

And students of recent Leafs history will know this is the time of the year when the urgency finally seems to dawn on them. Since the lockout, Toronto’s record in February, March and April is 63-44-15, much of that powered by strong finishes after the trade deadline when the pressure on the club has dropped significantly.

In previous seasons, that only served to scuttle their excellent draft prospects, though with Boston holding their ticket this June, a grand finale would be most welcome to take the pick out of lottery danger.

The players certainly haven’t gone overboard after one game, making any plans to be in Washington for a mid-April playoff round. They know the Devils will have Martin Brodeur back in goal on Friday, that red-hot Ottawa will be waiting for them at the ACC the next day and that Western Conference-leading San Jose is here Monday.

“We shot ourselves in the foot lately,” defenceman Francois Beauchemin said. “But like I’ve said before, go on a roll and win six in a row and you’re right back up there. We’re not playing easy teams. But a lot of (roster) changes are good sometimes.”

Phaneuf hit and he blocked shots against the Devils and will score sooner or later with his howitzer shot. Giguere made at least two stops against the Devils that the befuddled Vesa Toskala or greenhorn Jonas Gustavsson would likely have gagged on. Winger Fredrik Sjostrom had an assist, while youngsters Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson, the latter switched to centre, showed the comfort level that comes with full-time status.

“That was the first game with new people and it will be different the second time around,” Wilson cautioned. “We have to practise consistently, maintain our energy and keep our feet on the ground. It was one game, but it sure felt like a different sense in our room and I just want to find a way to bottle that and keep it available.”


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