April 11, 2006
TORONTO (CP) -- The Toronto Maple Leafs have been on a treadmill for two weeks, and they refuse to get off.
Call them masochists, call them proud athletes, call them what you want, but don't call them quitters because they've earned 12 of a possible 14 points in their last seven games.
Yet, despite all the sweat and all the stitches, they remained seven points out of a playoff spot as coach Pat Quinn presided over a sombre but fast-paced workout on Air Canada Centre ice Monday.
"Obviously, what we want is to get in,'' said Quinn, who hasn't coached a non-playoff entry since 1987 when he was behind the Los Angeles Kings' bench. "Our guys have been playing well.
"Clearly we had a mountain to climb and we may have left it too long but I suppose, at the end if we don't make it, it'll be a frustrating situation and we'll look back at the what ifs.
"Right now, we don't need to think about the frustration. We just need to keep winning games. There's no alternative.''
Toronto, which has 82 points, has five games remaining: Florida at home Tuesday, the New York Islanders on the road Thursday, Ottawa at home Saturday, in Buffalo on Sunday, and Pittsburgh at home Tuesday.
Tampa Bay, which has 89 points, has four games left: Atlanta at home Tuesday, a home-and-home set with Carolina on Friday-Saturday, and a home game against Washington on Tuesday.
Toronto would have to win all of its games, and have the Lightning lose three of its four, to make it. It's not impossible, which keeps the Leafs furiously riding the treadmill.
"The not gaining ground part is tough but until we're mathematically eliminated we're going to keep battling and clawing and fighting,'' said Darcy Tucker, who has a line of stitches under his left eye. "There's nothing else, as players, that you can do.
"Everybody has played their rear ends off all season long. There's been a lot of things that have gone on injury-wise that have put us behind the 8 ball, but we're going to keep trying to plow ahead.''
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out when things went wrong: they were 5-12-2 in January and February, losing seven of nine January games that Bryan McCabe missed with a groin injury.
"We were a pretty decent team up to Jan. 1,'' said Quinn. "Then it disappeared.
"Our team play wasn't good enough to get the job done at that time. No team avoided it but we lasted longer in the down time than most of the other teams did. We're going to pay dearly for it, possibly.''
Things have improved since Eric Lindros, Jason Allison and Alexander Khavanov were lost to injuries.
"Right now, our guys are moving the puck well,'' said Quinn. "We're getting into position more quickly than we had been.
"We're less ponderous in terms of puck movement, and we're doing a lot better job checking. There's lots of good things happening right now.''
Nik Antropov is playing his best hockey of the season, Jean-Sebastien Aubin is showing he's not finished as a big-league goalie, and Tucker has emerged as a team leader alongside captain Mats Sundin.
"He's a more mature player, a guy who is in better control,'' Quinn said of Tucker. "He's gone from pest to a good solid player showing leadership.''
Whether or not the Leafs make the playoffs, Tucker's stature in the organization will have grown. He's earned the recognition, too, because hockey fans have always cherished players who have a blue-collar persona.
"I'm a tough and tumble guy,'' says Tucker. "I play the game hard.
"Most people see that and get a kick out of it.''