TORONTO (CP) - Mike Peca says he'll be on skates within three weeks and ready to return to the lineup before the Toronto Maple Leafs end their 82-game schedule April 7.
The veteran centre said so Monday _ 59 days after breaking his right leg in a violent collision with Jim Vandermeer during a Dec. 22 game in Chicago.
There were multiple breaks in his tibia, the large bone between the knee and the ankle, and a metal plate and eight screws were used to fix it. Doctors diagnosed a recovery period of from three to four months. Peca is ahead of schedule.
"Of course I will,'' Peca replied when asked if he'd be able to play hockey again this season. "For two reasons _ one, I'm going to be back before the end of the regular season and, two, we're going to be in the playoffs.''
Peca predicted that he'd be skating during the first or second week of March.
"It's hard for me to put a timetable on it,'' he said. "I just know that things are starting to progress really quickly.''
He's set aside the cane he'd been using and was doing leg squats on Monday.
"It's almost like learning to walk again,'' he said. "I haven't really walked on it on my own power for almost two months so I'm getting used to doing that now.
"It feels good every day.''
Getting Peca back would be a big boost for the penalty killing.
Peca, Darcy Tucker (hairline ankle fractures) and Kyle Wellwood (hernia surgery) could all be fit for playoff action _ if the Leafs make the playoffs.
There are 23 games left, beginning with one against the visiting Boston Bruins on Tuesday night.
Toronto, the New York Islanders and Montreal each have 66 points. Carolina holds down seventh place in the NHL's Eastern Conference with 67.
The Leafs have two games in hand on the Canadiens and the Hurricanes and one on the Islanders.
In their last 10 games, Toronto has won seven and gained points from nine, and they still have no breathing room.
"We're 7-and-1 the last little bit and that's barely keeping us alive,'' lamented forward Jeff O'Neill. "It's almost a situation where you think you have to win out to get (a playoff berth), but I'm looking at it as a positive.
"The negative side of it is that we're eighth, but the positive is that we're pretty close to fourth or fifth. In the next 10 games it's really key to win seven or eight to make a real good push and solidify our spot.
"The next 10 or 12 games are basically going to decide your fate. It could go right down to the wire but if you win a good chunk of your games in this next little segment I think that team's going to have a distinct advantage over the rest.''
Captain Mats Sundin is four goals from passing Darryl Sittler and becoming the all-time leading goal scorer in club history.
"I've said before that milestones during the season are nothing you focus on,'' said Sundin. "We have the day-to-day goals and the next game, and that's where all my focus is.
"Obviously, I understand how many goals are left (to score to set the record) but it's nothing I'm thinking about. It happens whenever it happens _ if it happens _ and we'll go from there.''
The Leafs' game Thursday on Long Island looms large. They then play Saturday at Philadelphia and Monday at Montreal. They close out February with a home game against Buffalo next Tuesday.
"I looked at our schedule (Sunday),'' Sundin said. "March is tough.
"We've got to play some of the top teams.''
In March, Toronto plays Buffalo three times, New Jersey and Ottawa twice each and also faces Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.
"We don't have any time to relax or sit back and pat ourselves on the shoulders,'' Sundin said. "We need to keep going and keep doing the things we've been doing the last three weeks to make sure we have one of those playoff spots in April.''
Sundin has been at his best since the Jan. 24 all-star game. That's understandable given that, seeing his team so close to getting into playoff games for the first time since 2004, he wants to do his most to help make it happen.
"Between 40 and 60 games and after that it's kind of when you start to look forward to playoffs and playing in the spring,'' he said. "It's fun to play hockey right now, that's for sure.
"When you get a little older, and the coaching staff is stressing this, you have to bring leadership into the dressing room. We have a lot of young guys now, a good mix and older and younger players, so one of my roles is be a leader on the team.''