So now we find out.
For the Maple Leafs, the owner of a fine 7-3 slate this month, the season comes down to Tuesday night at home against the Boston Bruins. If the Leafs win, then Thursday in Boston becomes pivotal. They stand four points back of the Bruins with six games to play.
“We’ve got two big games,” said Matt Stajan. “Nothing else matters but the game tomorrow night. We’ve got to get a win. If we don’t, everything is just history.”
History is about right, a nice footnote overwhelmed by the sodden fact of life: three straight seasons out of the post-season.
With four teams, Boston, Washington, Buffalo and Florida still between the Leafs and eighth, this is still a prohibitive long-shot.
The Leafs will not return Mats Sundin. His groin injury is still too tender for skating so Sundin’s return is still games away. Nik Antropov is closer, but is not yet ready. Defensive presence Boyd Deveraux should be back in the lineup.
There has been enough exemplary play from Matt Stajan, Alex Steen, Pavel Kubina, Darcy Tucker and Ian White. Anton Stralman’s confidence and ice time have increased.
Leafs coach Paul Maurice said the club was turned around by two factors.
The first came at the trade deadline when Sundin as well as four others wouldn't exercise their no-trade clauses.
“Having five of your big name players take a stand and say that they want to be here and be a part of things was real important for that locker room,” Maurice said.
The second element, of course, is in goal.
”Two months ago, our goalie got healthy,” Maurice said. “That’s brought a really good feeling to the locker room.”
Win or lose, the Maple Leafs know they have their goalie.
To Toskala, the question of quitting in the middle of a desultory season, bordered on heresy.
“When you are a professional athlete, you are trying to win every game,” he said. “That’s why you don’t quit.”
“I think we’ve believed in here all the time that we have the chance to get into the playoff fight. That’s why we played so good lately.”
“The fact we re in this position speaks for how hard the guys have played,” said forward Darcy Tucker who scored in road wins against Buffalo and Ottawa.
We have done things without the puck and we’ve been a lot smarter. We’ve come back form three goals. We’ve won in lot of different ways.”
Now, more than ever, they have to win when they have to win. The Leafs have been doing so for a month. One week more, and a season given up for lost might be, against all odds, be redeemed