TORONTO (CP) - For the Toronto Maple Leafs, Thursday night's showdown in Detroit (TSN national, 7:30 p.m. EST) is more than a date with former goalie Curtis Joseph.
If the Leafs can beat the reigning Stanley Cup champions in their own building, it may help coach and GM Pat Quinn decide to shy away from a big trade before the league's March 11 deadline.
|It's though the Leafs are looking for defensive help.|
Graig Abel Photography
Going into Detroit, Toronto has won 11 of its last 13 games. A win in Hockeytown would be a compelling argument not to upset team chemistry. A loss, however, could reinforce the notion Quinn must swing a deal to enhance the chances of ending Toronto's 36-year Stanley Cup drought.
San Jose captain Owen Nolan is the central figure in trade rumours. The Sharks have been a bust this season and the new owners have ordered payroll cuts so an expensive veteran or two has to go.
While a top-four defenceman would be preferable, the right-wing spot is the one forward position that needs an injection of talent, and Nolan is a right-winger. The Olympian played for Quinn in Salt Lake City, and he grew up 90 minutes from Toronto in Thorold. Looks like a good fit.
This is the answer Quinn gave when asked if the Detroit game would be used to grade the necessity of a trade: "The mental side of our game is pretty good. We'll be playing a proven winner and that'll be another test.
"It's not the end of the world if we don't, but we'd like to perform well," Quinn continued. "I think our players would, too, to see where they are. They need constant reassurance or evaluations in their own minds. Every one of the guys in the room started the year wanting the chance to win the Cup and now we're going to play last year's winner and, maybe, there'll be something to be gained from a good performance there."
He's downplaying the presence of Joseph in Detroit.
"It's not about focusing on Curtis," said Quinn. "It's about focusing on ourselves and how we need to play to beat them.
"We know Curtis is going to be good. He's been good for a long time. We'll do the same report we do with every goaltender, 'Here's how we're going to score against him.' We'll make a plan but whether we can do it or not is another thing. He'll certainly have something to say about that."
Ed Belfour's outstanding efforts have given the Leafs no reason to regret the loss of Joseph. The Eagle is outplaying Cujo this season and, while nobody would have predicted this six months ago, he gives Toronto a better chance of winning a championship than it had with Cujo last season.
The Leafs return home to play Carolina on Saturday and Florida on Monday before games in Ottawa on Tuesday and Buffalo on Thursday.
"We can use our remaining 19 games to start getting into our mental side of the preparation for the playoffs," says Quinn. "We're going to have 20 guys on the other side who are going to be different players when the playoff puck drops and we need to be as well.
"We need to be shoring up areas of our game right now. Yes, we're doing some good things, and you're happy for that, and you're healthy, touch wood, but we need to do some work. Sometimes a little wakeup call, a few losses, doesn't hurt because you get the attention back. Right now our team is playing pretty good."
One of the most encouraging developments has been the improvement in defenceman Bryan McCabe. He didn't play as well during the autumn as he had last season but he's been much better in the last few weeks.
"Absolutely," agrees Quinn. "His game has taken a turn - a good turn for us."
Is the GM-coach comfortable going into the playoffs with the blue-line corps he has right now?
"You can always try to improve, but I like our guys," he says. "Are there nights when we don't play well there?
"Sure. We may not be able to do anything that improves us. There are some names I read in the newspaper, and people are suggesting we do this and that, but I don't think they can fit on our team. They're not as good as the guys we have, some of them, and clearly there are some guys who possibly could help us, but whether you can make the kind of deal that would make that happen is another question." Note:
Captain Mats Sundin needs two more points for 1,000. He'll become only the fifth man in Leafs history to reach the milestone in a Toronto uniform. The others: Norm Ullman (1971), Glenn Anderson (1993), Doug Gilmour (1995) and Larry Murphy (1996).