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Leafs Get Back At It

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

February 27, 2006

TORONTO (CP) -- They have four Olympic medal winners, three players returning from injury and a globe-trotting captain.

The Olympic break is over, but just which Toronto Maple Leafs team shows up for Tuesday's game against Washington is anyone's guess.

The Leafs will be counting on Ed Belfour in the final 25 games.
(Getty Images/NHLI)

"We've had a whole week of preparation here,'' forward Jeff O'Neill said of those not participating in the Games. "We'll be ready.''

But what of the Olympians?

Captain Mats Sundin and backup goaltender Mikael Tellqvist helped Sweden win a gold medal Sunday over a Finnish team that included Leafs defenceman Aki Berg.

Sundin and Tellqvist were in Stockholm celebrating the victory on Monday and weren't expected back in Toronto until Tuesday morning.

Still, Leafs coach Pat Quinn said he hopes to have his well-travelled captain in the lineup just hours after his return to Canada.

"We're counting on him to be here,'' said Quinn, who also coached Team Canada and arrived back from Italy early Monday. "It's a tough spot to play Sunday night several thousand miles away and expect him to be in the lineup here (on Tuesday).

"They probably need to have a day away, except . . .''

Except the Leafs, one point out of a playoff spot, are desperately in need of wins.

With 25 games to play and as many as six teams fighting for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Maple Leafs can't afford to throw away games _ especially against weaker teams like Washington.

"I think that one bad stretch might put us out of the playoffs,'' said O'Neill.

Added forward Darcy Tucker: "We're not afforded the luxury of looking past any games.''

They return of a few players could help.

Forward Eric Lindros pronounced himself fit to play against the Capitals after missing more than two months with a injury to his right wrist.

"It's been a long road, but hopefully it's over,'' said Lindros, who practised with a brace on the wrist and looked reluctant to shoot the puck during drills.

Defencemen Ken Klee (ankle) and Alexander Khavanov (foot) also indicated that their injuries had healed while the NHL took two weeks off for the Olympic tournament.

Quinn thinks the Leafs might be buoyed by the players who went to Turin and had success. In addition to the gold medals won by Sundin and Tellqvist, Berg won a silver and Czech defenceman Tomas Kaberle came back with a bronze.

Rookie forward Alex Steen said he thought Sundin took his game to another level during the Olympics and expects him to bring that game back to the NHL.

"Coming back with a gold medal in his pocket is definitely a confidence-booster,'' said Steen, who was born in Winnipeg but raised in Sweden and Germany. "He's that type of player; when the games start getting tougher, he gets better and better.

"He rises to the occasion.''

Toronto hasn't missed the playoffs since Quinn was hired before the 1998-99 season.

All 25 of their remaining games are against teams based in the Eastern Conference, which means they will probably face several must-win situations in the next two months.

One key to succeeding down the stretch will be getting big performances from their top players _ Sundin, Kaberle, defenceman Bryan McCabe and goalie Ed Belfour.

Kaberle, for one, said he expects his game to benefit from the Turin experience, but added: "I don't think it's going to help me in the next few days. It was difficult playing eight games in 11 nights, I've got to be honest.''

So it might be some of the lower profile players who need to step up their games over the next week. After playing Washington Tuesday, the Leafs travel to Buffalo for a game Friday before hosting Ottawa on Saturday.

The non-Olympic players had nine days off _ which many used to vacation in the sun judging by all the tans _ before returning to practice last week.

Steen says those guys can't wait to resume the playoff chase.

"Two weeks is a long time,'' he said. "I think I can speak for everybody in here when I say that we're really excited and ready to go again.''

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