TORONTO - Mike Komisarek was sweaty and exasperated. A row of television cameras and microphones had closed around him like a barn door as he trudged to his dressing room stall after practice, catching the injured Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman off-guard as he turned to take his seat.
"I can't be that exciting," he said, smiling and panting.
The 28-year-old has been sidelined for three weeks with what is believed to be a shoulder injury and his presence on the ice Monday, if not exciting, at least represented something approaching good news. There is hope he could return to game action with the Leafs on Saturday, making it one of the rare instances when "hope"and "Leafs" have appeared in the same sentence this season.
Toronto has lost three straight, and nine of the 12 games it has played in this calendar year. The Leafs sit 28th of 30 teams in the National Hockey League standings, employing the worst penalty-killing unit in the game while rumours of deadline-day roster purges percolate around the city.
General manager Brian Burke has remained steadfast and public in his drive to get the team into the playoffs this year, for the first time in six years. But it has also been reported that the Leafs have made it known they are willing to take on salary in exchange for draft picks heading toward March 3, the NHL's trade deadline.
Toronto has nine players who are set to become unrestricted free agents this summer. Several of those players, including veteran forwards such as Matt Stajan, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Lee Stempniak have been mentioned among those who could be on the move.
"I'm not concerned about it," Stempniak said on Monday. "You have to play hockey, and you can't really worry about the other things. Things like that work themselves out. When I was traded last year, I had no idea it was coming, and I just sort of dealt with that and understand the reality of it."
That being said, the speculation, when combined with the overall struggles of the team, does not always make the arena the most comfortable workplace in the city.
"You come and you work hard and you try to have a positive mind frame, but I'd be lying if I said I come in here every day with a smile on my face," Stempniak said. "You try to be positive. But you understand that there's a lot of work to be done."
The last two defeats have been particularly difficult. Toronto lost in overtime to Tampa Bay last week after conceding a pair of foolish penalties. The Leafs followed that loss with a 2-0 defeat to the Florida Panthers, a middle-of-the-road team fighting to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
"You can't get down," Leafs forward Colton Orr said. "You've got to stick together as a group and get through this together."
Komisarek is hoping to rejoin that struggle soon, but conceded he would not be ready to return during the week. He said Monday he was not ready for physical contact. He has visited a specialist in Alabama, with his place on the U.S. Olympic team hanging in the balance.
"It's been a tough couple of weeks, sitting on the sidelines, not playing, not helping your teammates," he said. "It's definitely tough watching the games and not being part of the games, and not being out there battling side-by-side with your teammates."
Toronto has eight games left on its schedule before the NHL shuts down for the Olympics, beginning with a visit from the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night. The Leafs also have three meetings with the New Jersey Devils, who occupied second place in the conference standings heading into Monday's action.
The Leafs sat 14th, with two wins in their previous 10 games. Komisarek has missed all of those games, and has been held without a goal through the 34 contests he has been able to play this season. He has four assists, and is a minus-nine.
"Despite our up-and-down, roller-coaster season, I strongly believe that if we get on a roll here, anything can happen," he said. "With you guys, it's your job to second-guess and critique things, and count us out.
"It's up to us, as players, to prove people wrong."