There is an old baseball story about a spitball pitcher who was determined to go straight.
After being knocked around the park, he found himself with the bases loaded, facing the opposition’s best hitter. The manager sauntered to the mound.
“If you know how to cheat,” he said, “now would be a good time to start.”
And so it is for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who face the New York Islanders in Uniondale in what is the latest in a seemingly unending string of must-win games.
The Islanders are acknowledged by one and all to be all but out of the playoff race. They have 71 points, nine behind eighth place Philadelphia. The Leafs are just three points better than the Isles with just nine games left to play. Now you understand the delicacy of the situation as the Leafs face road games against the New York Islanders, Tuesday, Buffalo Sabres, Friday and the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.
The best analogy of the Islanders’ mindset is a story about lobsters. It has long fascinated behaviour specialists that when it appears a lobster is about to climb free of the pail that contains him, another lobster will reach down and pull him back. In other words, the Islanders will not be co-operative.
I tell you these stories because I suspect that like me, you are terribly tired of the things athletes have to say about this time of year.
“Treat every game like a playoff game,” “do or die”, “one game at a time” and even the phrase “I know this sounds like a cliché,” are all insufferable clichés.
So let’s put things in focus here.
The Maple Leafs are the spitballer in need of a miracle. There are several reasons for this, but injuries are as good a place to start. Captain Mats Sundin greeted the media at Lakeshore Lions Arena with the news that his groin, injured against the Flyers, March 12 won’t allow him back in the lineup until perhaps Friday. It sounded a lot more like Saturday, or even next week.
“It’s the skating, the starts and stops, any kind of turning,” Sundin said. “I can’t use my left leg more than 50 per cent, tops.”
“The window on it is 10 days to two and a half weeks of healing,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice. “We know he’s not playing tomorrow night and fortunately, we know he’s a real fast healer.” By Friday, Sundin will have had nine days of rest.
“The window would be for him to play on the weekend,” Maurice said.
Sundin does indeed enjoy a wonderfully forgiving immune system but a strained groin muscle is nobody’s walk in the park. That turning and skating stuff can be important at this level.
Antropov, like Sundin, tried some skating on Monday morning. And like Sundin, he will definitely miss Tuesday’s game on the Island.
“There is a little bit of swelling,” Maurice said. “We are hopeful, for him for the weekend too.”
Another loss and the weekend won’t much matter much. After a streak of good play, the Leafs must now rally from what was one of their most disappointing performances, a listless 6-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Saturday.
The Leafs skate into New York with a rear-view full of tepid defensive play, middling goaltending and uninspired effort. Maurice nailed Kyle Wellwood’s behind to the bench in favour of Jeremy Williams in the third period, Saturday night. The time for waiting has come and gone.
“I didn’t bench Kyle in the third period. I went with a guy who I thought was going better,” said Maurice “It’s not a matter of trying to send a message to him.”
Maybe not, but with the Leafs having to run the table with no guarantee of making the playoffs even if they do, one or two losses would about close out their season “Tomorrow night, obviously, is a must-win for us,” said Jason Blake, who was one of the few Leafs’ forwards with some spark against Buffalo.
“I think there’s a good feeling in the room. I know we had a little letdown against Buffalo but we’ve been playing solid hockey for the last two months. There’s a good feeling here, but we want to get to where we want to get to. With Mats out and Nik out, we just need a little bit more.
Leafs forward John Pohl is back home in Minnesota. His brother Tom was hit by an elbow while playing for the University of Minnesota.
He is being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and needed surgery to cope with pressure from a skull fracture.
Maurice said the news was good and should it continue, John Pohl would return to Toronto to rehab an injured ankle. He too could be ready on the weekend.