Leafs ready for last stretch

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:30 PM ET

Back from the Olympic break, the Maple Leafs won’t be getting a playoff spot in their remaining 21 games but they can still win some big games for their general manager.

Starting with Tuesday night’s tussle with the Carolina Hurricanes at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs can help improve their team’s first-round draft situation, imperiled by GM Brian Burke’s deal for winger Phil Kessel.

Right now, Boston holds the first choice this year and next and the 29th place Leafs could be giving up a blue-chip prospect.

“Phil is a great addition to our team,” said defenceman Luke Schenn. “But having said that, we don’t want to give up a pick that high, especially to Boston, a team in our division and conference. That’s another motivational thing for us.

“At the end of the day, we want to prove we can win with the guys in here again. We’ll make a push for sure and not be satisfied with where we are, get a lot more confidence and believe we can start winning around here.”

That job will be complicated on Tuesday by ex-Leaf coach Paul Maurice’s hot ‘Canes, who had won five in a row before the break.

“We had a lot of ground to cover,” Maurice joked. “We had got used to playing without any (injured guys) back and suddenly we got one or two. Tonight will be the first time I’ve had to sit someone out.”

Maurice won’t apologize for taking his team out of the first-round pick sweepstakes.

“That’s not our job,” the coach said. “But it’s interesting that we did make a decision after the 20-game mark when we were in real trouble, to play the kids such as Brandon Sutter and Brett Carson. A big chunk of our lineup has now got into the NHL and now we’re winning some games.”

Coach Ron Wilson and winger Kessel were back on the ice this morning for the Leafs, though Kessel refused to speak to reporters. Wilson had tried to portray his team as an underdog going into the tourney, even though goalie Ryan Miller made the U.S. at least a bronze medal threat and a new-look, high-energy American team nearly toppled Canada in its own backyard.

Wilson was torn between talking about what might have been had his team won Sunday’s final in OT and trying to move on and get back to NHL business.

“It’s going to sting for awhile,” Wilson said. “We weren’t dominated by Canada in any stretch. You go into overtime and anything can happen. The puck hit the referee’s skate (retrieved by Jarome Iginla and fed to Sidney Crosby), no one mentions that and it caused the kind of kerfuffle that happened in the corner and (Canada) took advantage of it.

“We knew how good (the U.S. could be). The I-told-you-so could have been all the people who wrote Canada off (earlier in the tournament). The biggest surprise to me were all the people who threw Marty Brodeur, the greatest goalie in the history of the game, under the bus and ran over him, forward and backward, and almost tarnished his career (based on) one night.

“In our business, it’s about winning the whole thing, not putting it in perspective. In five years, no one will give a damn who won. We have a job to do (back here).”

Wilson hoped Wednesday’s looming 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline wouldn’t have an adverse effect on Leafs such as Alexei Ponikarovsky, who was still in Toronto colours as game-time approached.

“They’ve been hearing about it for a month,” Wilson said. “In clips I’ve seen, I don’t know how many time’s Pony’s been asked over and over. But we still have a job to do and who knows, maybe nothing happens. No one has told me we can’t play anybody (Tuesday night).”

Canada’s Eric Staal of the Hurricanes can expect a huge ovation Tuesday if his efforts are recognized before the game. He became a member of a special group who have drank from the Stanley Cup, raised the world championship trophy and been presented with Olympic gold.

“It hasn’t sunk in, but they gave me a little pin as a member of the triple gold club,” Staal said. “It’s an elite group to be in at my age of 25. Now I hope to add to those totals.”


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