TORONTO (CP) -- The Toronto Maple Leafs have shown themselves as both contenders and pretenders this season with an inconsistency that is frustrating head coach Pat Quinn.
He may get some answers, good or bad, in the next stretch of games. The Leafs play six games in nine days, starting with Friday's game at Carolina, a period that should act as a good barometer of what this team is made of.
"It's going to be a challenge for us, there's no question about it,'' Quinn said after Thursday's practice at Air Canada Centre. "And not only because of the rapid number of games and the lack of opportunity to recover properly physically, but also the discipline that's going to be necessary when you're a little bit tired, because that's when mistakes start to happen.
"This is going to be a real test.''
The Leafs (12-8-2) continue to search for an identity one game past the quarter pole of the season. Can they really compete with the Ottawas of the world? Captain Mats Sundin also feels the upcoming six-game stretch in nine days will be very telling.
"It's a great test for our team,'' Sundin said. "And we've got to play some good teams, starting with Carolina (14-6-1) tomorrow and then Montreal (14-5-3) on Saturday. It's a critical period of the season for us.''
The head scratching began after Wednesday's dismal performance in a 5-1 home loss to Boston, the Bruins needing that victory to snap a six-game losing streak. Quinn had hoped a recent four-game win streak by his team, the best stretch of the young season for the Leafs, was a sign that his club had turned the corner.
"We thought we were going to have an easy game last night and that was part of the problem,'' Quinn said.
"We were reading all this nice stuff about us,'' he added sarcastically, "so we had our feet up on the desk to start the game last night and figured our marvellous skill would just take over any time we wanted.''
If the Leaf players wondered how Quinn would react to Wednesday's effort, they got their answer when they arrived in the dressing room Thursday morning and saw which jersey colour they were assigned for practice.
New linemates all around.
"Players have to understand that it's not always status quo, especially if you're not working at your job,'' Quinn said. "We had some guys who probably didn't work too well last night and maybe don't deserve to stay into certain status spots.
"I think you shake it up to hopefully get them thinking about what their jobs are rather than it just being a cruise out there.''
The line shakeup, at least in practice, featured Mariusz Czerkawski making a return from healthy scratch to top line duty with Sundin and Darcy Tucker. The other lines saw Eric Lindros between Alexander Steen and Tie Domi, Kyle Wellwood with Matt Stajan and Jeff O'Neill, while Jason Allison remained at centre between Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov.
Chad Kilger, Clarke Wilm and Wade Belak skated together.
"We thought let's move them around and see what we could bring out of that,'' Quinn said. "But I haven't decided for sure what the lines will be tomorrow.''
Czerkawski has dressed in only six games (one assist) this season, his last game coming nearly a month ago on Oct. 27. He needs to grab this opportunity before Quinn totally loses confidence in him.
"I'm excited,'' he said after practice. "I've been patiently waiting for a while. I just have to play my game, move the puck and create some chances.
"I'll get a chance tomorrow, and hopefully I can have an impact.''
After Montreal, the Leafs head to the road to face Florida on Monday, Tampa Bay next Wednesday and Atlanta next Thursday. They wrap up the current six-game stretch at home against San Jose on Saturday, Dec. 3.