TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs, clinging to the notion they can still make the NHL playoffs, are entering a six-game segment of their schedule that will probably determine their fate.
The Leafs play in Buffalo on Wednesday and then are home for five in a row, and they hope to ride the momentum gained from wins over Montreal and Detroit in their last two games to make a move up in the standings.
"Obviously we have to win a lot of games and we probably need to get help from some other teams to struggle down the stretch," says captain Mats Sundin. "You know, if we can play the way we did the last couple of games . . . we'll have a chance."
It's a big IF.
Toronto has 25 games left and is seven points out of the eighth and final playoff qualifying position in the Eastern Conference. The odds are against the Leafs, and their inconsistency has already cost GM John Ferguson his job, but they haven't given up.
"It's nice to come to the rink and see the guys joking around with each other a little bit," head coach Paul Maurice said after the team's annual outdoor practice Monday.
It was, brrrrr, minus-10 as the players scrimmaged on a sheet of gleaming ice just east of downtown to promote the club's participation with The Home Depot in refurbishing outdoor rinks in the city. Bundled-up school children sprung from classes so they could get a close-up look at their hockey heros waved Leafs flags and cheered every pass and shot on goal.
"It was a good time," said Matt Stajan. "Our toes and fingers were a little cold but it's great for the kids and it brings back memories.
"We get treated really nice nowadays with all the arenas we play in and this brings you back to where you started. It's a lot of fun."
Most of the players wore balaclavas - Wade Belak sported one that was florescent orange - under their helmets to protect their necks from the cold.
"Whether you're Canadian or Swedish, we all were on outdoor rinks growing up," said Sundin. "The sun was out and it was amazing to see all the kids out there.
"We were more worried about them than ourselves."
About an hour after taking to the ice, the players lobbed pucks to spectators before slipping off the skates in a change room, pulling on running shoes, and walking up a path to a bus that took them back to Air Canada Centre. Kids squealed for autographs and Sundin and his teammates obliged as papers and pens were thrust towards them over a snow fence.
The recent wins have the players feeling good about themselves for a change.
"(The wins) should breed some confidence into our group knowing that we beat two really good hockey clubs the last week," said Sundin. "Hopefully we can keep it going."
Buoying their confidence is the return of injured regulars.
Defenceman Bryan McCabe has been back in the lineup for two games now after a broken left hand healed, Alex Steen returned Saturday after rehabbing a separated shoulder, and Alexei Ponikarovsky (dislocated shoulder) and Chad Kilger (personal reasons) hope to be back in action Wednesday.
"We're moving closer and closer to getting our room back and there's been a little bit of a good feeling in the locker-room that hasn't grown out of control," said Maurice.
All that is in their thoughts now is the game against the Sabres, said Steen.
"The success we've had the last few games against some big teams is because we've been taking them game by game," he said. "We know it's a cliche but we know it's the way we need to keep our mentality, and we need to keep thinking that way for the remainder of the season.
"We have to make sure our focus is on the next game and no further ahead than that. We do that and we prepare ourselves the way we have been and we'll be in those tight games the rest of the way."
The New York Islanders visit Thursday, Boston comes in Saturday, and Columbus, Buffalo and Atlanta arrive next week.
"It's more fun coming to the rink when you're winning and you want to keep the momentum going right now," said Stajan.
Vesa Toskala has been a major factor in the winning and Maurice says he'll stick with the Finn for the remainder of the schedule.
"He's going to be very important," said Sundin. "He's been playing really well.
"I think Vesa has shown that he's a top-end goalie in this league. He's done a good job."
Sundin turns 37 on Wednesday.
"When you get older, you stop counting," he said.
He's living in the now.
"My only focus is making sure we do everything we can do to make the playoffs," he replied when asked if he'd contemplated a future that didn't include playoffs this spring. "When the season is over, I'll have time to reflect back and analyse my own performance and how we've done as a team and I'll go from there.
"At this point, I'm just worried about the next game."