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Leafs go with familiar cast in bid for first playoff berth since 2004

NHL.com @NHL

TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs are skating into the NHL season with a new mindset and it is going to make a difference.

A year ago, they set their collective goal low. They talked about having to plug away in a dogfight for a playoff spot and, with injuries playing no small role, they fell just short for the second year in a row.

This time, they are saying they will be in the playoffs - no maybes about it.

The positive approach is borne out of necessity, of course. The players all realize that general manager John Ferguson and head coach Paul Maurice are out - and some of them, too - if post-season games don't return to Air Canada Centre for the first time since 2004.

They should succeed.

The opener is next Wednesday at home against Ottawa and the two teams play again Thursday in Canada's capital.

The additions of 40-goal scorer Jason Blake and goaltender Vesa Toskala and no significant roster deletions mean Toronto's lineup will be better than the one that came up one point shy last spring.

Toronto was eighth in the league in goals scored and 25th in goals against so there is no mystery about what most needs repair.

Enter Toskala to challenge Andrew Raycroft for the No. 1 goaltending job. It was abundantly clear when Ferguson flashed an US$8-million, two-year contract extension that Toskala was going to be more than a bench warmer. Toskala has appeared in 115 regular-season games and has a goals-against average of 2.34. Raycroft has played in 180 and is at 2.77. The previous backup, J.S. Aubin, has a career GAA of 2.99.

All of these numbers suggest goaltending has been upgraded and the team's GAA this season will improve.

The defence corps is satisfactory. That's all. Tomas Kaberle seldom errs and is the only blue-liner who is consistently of all-star calibre. Bryan McCabe has that rocket of a shot to finish off power plays. Stay-at-home giant Hal Gill and small but effective Ian White are solid contributors. Pavel Kubina gets an all-star paycheque but rarely resembles an all-star. Carlo Colaiacovo and Andy Wozniewski would have more of an impact if they weren't hurt so often.

Up front, Maurice would like to start with Mats Sundin between Blake and the fragile Nik Antropov, who has missed 73 games the last three seasons.

With Kyle Wellwood to miss at least the first three weeks with a recurrence of his groin strains, Chad Kilger is likely to centre a second line with Darcy Tucker and Alexei Ponikarovsky. John Pohl would be a good option if Kilger is kept on the third line.

Kilger is one of the few Leafs who finish checks with meaningful body bashes and his size makes him best suited for a third-line, checking-first assignment. Alex Steen and Matt Stajan are probably third-liners.

Mark Bell will be in the mix somewhere after he serves his 15-game league suspension.

Bates Battaglia, Wade Belak, Boyd Devereaux and Ben Ondrus are fourth-line material.

If Simon Gamache, Tony Salmelainen and Jiri Tlusty don't start the season with the Leafs, they'll be close by for callups from the AHL Marlies.

The Leafs need to get more out of the third and fourth lines. Anaheim can send out a third line comprised of Travis Moen, Sammy Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer. Now that is championship material. The Leafs need more muscle on their third and fourth lines to get that GAA down.

Developments elsewhere will aid Toronto's quest for a playoff berth.

The New York Islanders, who landed that precious eighth spot just one point ahead of the Leafs last spring, appear on paper to be weaker. Ditto for conference leader Buffalo. The Sabres won't be hogging quite so many Northeast points this season.

Sundin and his teammates know what is on the line. Everyone in the organization has waited long enough for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. Failure would mean organizational overhaul from top to bottom. It would be time for Sundin to move on.

It will only take a few games for Sundin to become the all-time leader in goals scored, surpassing Darryl Sittler's club record. Leafs faithful will roar their approval. But if the big Swede wants to be remembered favourably, he must lead them back into the playoffs during the next 82 games. He could then finish his career in the blue and white.

The Leafs play eight of their first 10 games at home, where they gave away too many points last season. They need at least 14 of those first 20 points to prove that Maurice's pledge they'll make the believes is more than hot air.

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A quick look at the Toronto Maple Leafs heading into the 2007-2008 NHL season:

Last season: 40-31-11, 9th in Eastern Conference.

Who's in: Jason Blake, Mark Bell, Vesa Toskala.

Who's out: Michael Peca, Jeff O'Neill, Yanic Perreault, Travis Green, J.S. Aubin.

The storylines: Will 40-goal scorer Blake find chemistry with Mats Sundin on the first line? Can Toskala be a No. 1 goalie? Will Bell, suspended by the league for the first 15 games, get his career back on track after failing in Chicago and San Jose?

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