Must-win time for Leafs

Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer watches as the puck squeaks through and crosses the goal line...

Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer watches as the puck squeaks through and crosses the goal line in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on March 10, 2011. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:54 PM ET

Spring exams are here for the young Maple Leafs and failure will mean a long summer.

The 20th game they will play since exciting their long-suffering fans with a post all-star break run will be Saturday at home against the Buffalo Sabres. That’s a division foe, their closest geographical rival, sitting six points ahead of them in a tie for the last playoff spot. It’s getting late, however ...

“Tomorrow is a chance to show you can shine in a pressure situation,” coach Ron Wilson told the media on Friday, repeating his lecture to the players in a meeting before cancelling practice and sending them home to meditate. “These are the games that you want to participate in, especially if you view yourself as a top hockey player and want to make a difference when it matters most.

“Your best players have to perform at their best and your role players have to give it their best. Right now, there’s nothing more important than tomorrow.”

The Leafs started their ‘biggest-game-of-the-year’ mantra just minutes after the Philadelphia Flyers dealt their playoff hopes a hard knock with Thursday’s 3-2 win. That turned a 10-2-4 run since Feb. 1 into a three-game losing streak and left the 10th-place Leafs only 14 games to close the gap. Buffalo and ninth-place Carolina also have a game in hand.

But part of the reason for Friday’s professional development day was Wilson wanting to take minds off the worsening mathematical permutations. The coach saw no value in working them on the ice another day when they’ve been in a home game/road game cycle the past nine with few breaks.

“All our energy has to be focused on the ice,” Wilson said. “Each guy has to think about what he can bring. If he doesn’t have his ‘A’ game, what (else) he can do, block a shot, take a hit to make a play, anything like that.”

Defenceman Keith Aulie said the early-morning meeting was upbeat. The players expected to be skating. In fact, the trainers had already filled water bottles on the benches at the MasterCard Centre. But the dressing room doors never opened and the players headed back to the parking lot after their chat.

“(Wilson) emphasized that this is our playoffs now, that we’re on the outside looking in,” Aulie said. “It started early for us this year. It’s a race to the end and every point is huge for us. We’ve found out the past while that if we all go out there and do our jobs, that we can do well and we can win.”

But a win Saturday would be just part of the required miracle finish. The Leafs have the Tampa Bay Lightning in on Monday, then play five of their next six on the road, including a Western Conference road trip.

”We’re not in a Game 7 situation here, but this is a good experience for our players,” Wilson added. “That’s what we talked about today.

“You would have gone into yesterday’s game thinking we needed 11 wins. All we did was shrink the window, but it’s still possible to do it.

“We take care of business (against Buffalo) and then, Monday night, the same thing from here on in.”

Wilson says James Reimer gets the start in goal again, his 25th start of the year. The coach has not changed his mind about riding Reimer as long as he can, but the rookie is showing some wear and tear and a couple of questionable goals that might see Jean-Sebastien Giguere step in before long. A series of posts and crossbars have aided Reimer’s cause the past few games, but an ugly Darroll Powe goal on Thursday, when he fought off Brett Lebda in the corner and his pass out found a hole at the side of the net.

“(Powe’s) shot hit the side of the net, the back of Reimer’s leg and went in,” Wilson noted. “He’s blaming himself for it, but we shouldn’t have been in that position where their guy has the puck. We missed a couple of chances to clear. We’ve scored some lucky goals, too. I consider (Mikhail Grabovski’s) to be lucky, a deflection off his shield. We also have to work hard to put ourselves in position to be lucky.”

Aulie, the only Leafs player to speak on Friday, said the team has to resist temptation to do too much on Saturday, especially if it falls behind, which it has in each of its past five starts.

“We all know we have roles out there and that we can’t step out of them,” Aulie said. “We’re playing like its the playoffs now. There are big games now, especially head-to-head. It would be nice to catch a break, but at the same time we know we have a job to do, re-group, re-charge and be ready for tomorrow.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/sunhornby


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