Leafs practice hard despite looming elimination

Toronto Maple Leafs Tyler Bozak and New York Rangers Ryan Callahan race for the puck along the end...

Toronto Maple Leafs Tyler Bozak and New York Rangers Ryan Callahan race for the puck along the end boards in the first period of last Saturday night's games. (REUTERS)

Rob Longley, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 8:10 PM ET

TORONTO - They can't talk about the obvious and they can't escape the training camp regime, either.

Not exactly pleasant times to be a Maple Leaf player with just six games remaining and the possibility of playoff elimination arriving as early as 10 p.m., Tuesday night.

But whether they like it or not, the Leafs continue to get an early start on next year's training camp. Monday at the Mastercard Centre was the latest drill session from Randy Carlyle and his coaching staff as fitness and battle drills continued to be the emphasis over a practice that once again topped 90 minutes.

A loss against the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre would officially eliminate the Leafs, who with 75 points trail both the Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals by nine for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

But with Toronto only having six games remaining and the Caps and Sabres meeting each other on Tuesday, a Leafs' loss would confirm the inevitable -- that the franchise-record run of playoff misses will hit seven seasons.

So what's left to work for?

Plenty, given that Carlyle's relentless practices are designed not only to implement his new systems and work ethic, but to get an early start on the 2012-13 campaign and help management evaluate who might still be around.

"There's a little bit left in the season, but everybody's basically battling to the end and making your bed for next year and the following year," said forward Mike Brown, who is getting close to returning from a thigh/knee injury that has kept him out of the lineup for the past nine games. "Every time you have (a new coach) you want to prove yourself, show him what you have. That's what the guys in here are going for."

They are having more time to do it than under Ron Wilson as practices have definitely been longer and punctuated with a high-tempo skating drill at the end.

The Hurricanes had practice ice on an adjoining rink at the Mastercard Centre on Monday. Their workout started a half hour later than the 90-minute Leafs session and ended 10 minutes earlier. Even worse, the Leafs players could see their opponent walk right past their rink both pre- and post-practice.

Carlyle, for the record, rejects the notion he is running a boot camp -- a statement backed up by Brown, who played for him in Anaheim. In other words, when next season arrives, the work will continue.

"I don't know where you guys believe this is so hard, I think that's just a regular day's practice," Carlyle said. "There was more dead time because there was a teaching phase. That really chews up the clock for you as a coach when you are setting up a practice plan.

"I don't think it's really strenuous or taxing on a hockey club."

Meanwhile, the roster flux that has been in effect in recent games is expected to continue against the Hurricanes. Brown, Matt Frattin and Clarke MacArthur all were full participants in Tuesday's practice and any combination of the three could be back in the lineup against the 'Canes.

Carlyle said the lineup won't be decided until after Tuesday morning's game day skate.

To make room for the return from the injury ward, Nazem Kadri and Ryan Hamilton were returned to the AHL Marlies after two-game stints with the big team.

As for the inevitable elimination -- whether it comes Tuesday or later this week, it is forbidden conversation inside the room until the math says otherwise.

"We haven't talked about that at all," Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said. "Obviously, we realize we are not in an ideal position in the standings. It's been like that here for a little bit, but guys continue to work hard and push.

"You're a professional athlete, you stay competitive no matter what. You don't want to show up to the rink and be embarrassed by the other team."

And the chance to make a favourable impression with Carlyle continues.

"We're about the now and what's coming," the coach said, "Because we can't change what's happened."

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport


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