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Sweet Home-and-Home

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
by John McCauley

There's little doubt that as the National Hockey League has grown and realigned its divisions, many ideas have focused on creating new rivalries but none have worked as well as the home-and-home series.

After the Toronto Maple Leafs wish to join the Eastern Conference was granted prior to the 1998-99 season, one of the main concerns was the loss of many long-standing rivalries. Gradually being phased out are intense battles --like ones between Detroit and Toronto-- that have thrilled for years.

To combat this the NHL has increased the number of home-and-home series to try and recapture the matchups the league has become know for. The Maple Leafs take part in their third of six home-and-home series Friday night in Chicago and it doesn't bother head coach Pat Quinn one bit.

"With 82 games, that's a lot of games for players, too many in my opinion, but what brings them back into the mold is often that they're going to play the same team on back-to-back nights," Quinn said. "That sets the stage for better competition."

In two previous home-and-home series this year, the Leafs complied a 1-0-1-2 record against the Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils. Even though the results don't depict it, Toronto played some of its best hockey in those four games.

The Leafs will try and build on those memories but are stumbling into the Windy City losing three of their last four games. Most recently the Carolina Hurricanes handed Toronto a 5-2 loss on Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre.

The Leafs were able to control much of the play in their latest loss but couldn't get the puck past veteran netminder Tom Barrasso. Even more costly were early defensive breakdowns, which cost the team three first-period goals.

Quinn hopes his team will rebound and take advantage of Chicago's sluggish play of late. The Blackhawks have been sputtering after a quick start, suffering a seven-game winless streak despite salvaging a tie in four of those games. Alex Zhamnov appears to be assuming some of the responsibilities that go along with being a front-line centre. The speedy playmaker leads the team with 24 points.

If anything can get the either team back on the right track it should be a home-and-home series. Many players respond when emotion becomes a larger part of the game and that is the main idea behind the scheduling quirk.

"With head-to-head games there are always lots of emotions involved," said Bryan McCabe, who netted a goal against the Hurricanes. McCabe's teammate Dmitry Yushkevich agrees.

"There is very high intensity and sometimes you do those things you don't do under normal circumstances," Yushkevich said.

Besides enjoying the competition level that normally takes place in a home-and-home series the Maple Leafs will have one less problem to worry about in Chicago.

Former Leafs' winger Steve Thomas won't be in the lineup. He fractured a bone in his left ankle November 15 against the Calgary Flames. The 38-year-old is expected to miss four to six weeks of action.

Thomas was fitting in nicely to his new surroundings. The veteran had seven goals and four assists in 21 games while playing on Chicago's third line with rookie Mark Bell and another former Leaf, Igor Korolev.

Toronto will also have to keep tabs on speedster Steve Sullivan, who was waived by the Leafs prior to the 1999-2000 season. Sullivan has found a home with the Blackhawks but has been slumping. He will have something to prove to his former team.

Besides the regular intensity that goes along with a Toronto-Chicago game, the added home-and-home element should jump-start both teams and that's exactly what they need.
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