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Playoff Hopes Hinge on Week Ahead

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

TORONTO (CP) - The Toronto Maple Leafs begin the second-last week of the regular season at the bottom of a six-team race for the last three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, but still very much alive after a huge rebound win.

Left for dead by some of their fans following a devastating Friday night loss at Buffalo, the Maple Leafs showed their pluck with a 4-1 win over the Sabres on Saturday.

It left them only two points behind the eighth and final playoff spot.

''We've got a lot of character in here,'' said Maple Leafs forward Matt Stajan. ''Even though we have a lot of young guys in here, our veterans are great and hold us together. For us to bounce back after what I think is the worst possible way you can lose, to win like we did (Saturday night) shows a lot about every guy in this room.

''And we're going to need that right to the end of the season. Tuesday night is a big one against Carolina.''

They're all big ones at this stage of the season, but Tuesday's home game against the defending Stanley Cup champions is a direct chance to make some hay among the bubble teams. The Hurricanes are two points ahead of the Leafs.

In fact, four of Toronto's seven remaining games to wrap up the regular season are against teams in and around them in the chase. They also play April 1 at New York against the Rangers, April 5 at the New York Islanders and host the Montreal Canadiens to wrap up the season on April 7.

''It'll come down to winning the heads-to-heads. That'll be the key,'' said Leafs head coach Paul Maurice.

The stretch run has gone to plan despite Friday night's debacle. Maurice sat down before last week and determined what his team needed to get in the post-season.

''I've looked at the last 10 (games), I've got a number in my head, and we're on track,'' Maurice said.

They're on track because they started the stretch by taking two of three from New Jersey and Buffalo, about as good as the Leafs could have hoped for.

Maurice woke up Saturday morning, though, wondering just how his team could pull it off after blowing a three-goal lead in the third period a night earlier.

He hoped they would respond like they did when they were hammered by injuries throughout the season.

''That's what I was hanging on to all the way to the rink _ that at the very least every time we've been kicked, we found a way to come back and survive,'' said Maurice. ''When we lost all those guys, we found a way. To take a loss like we did Friday night and come back ... as rough as this season has been at times it's why I enjoy these guys so much because they find a way.''

Leafs goalie Andrew Raycroft, whose two key breakaway saves Saturday help preserve the victory, says it was never in the cards to fold after Friday night.

''It would have been easier to cave in,'' he said. ''We could have caved in December, in January, with all the injuries, but I think we've proven time and time again that we're not going away.

''It speaks to the character of this team.''

Now comes Carolina followed by a road game at Atlanta on Thursday and a home game against Pittsburgh on Saturday _ all three teams ahead of them in the standings.

In the meantime, all the other bubble teams keep on winning as well, keeping the Leafs below the eighth spot.

''We can't concern ourselves with that,'' said winger Darcy Tucker, whose two goals lifted the Leafs on Saturday night. ''There's nothing we can do to control what other teams do. We've got a chance and that's all that matters to us.''

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