TORONTO - The boost the Toronto Maple Leafs were hoping to get this weekend with the return of their captain likely won't materialize.
Leading scorer Mats Sundin appears to be out for must-win games in Buffalo on Friday night and Ottawa on Saturday night. He has missed two games since leaving a March 12 game in Philadelphia with a groin injury.
"Not overly optimistic," Leafs head coach Paul Maurice said Thursday after practice. "It's not improving as quickly as we had hoped. Maybe we were overly hoping that it would get better faster. I'm not optimistic that he's going to be in this weekend."
Sundin didn't even skate Thursday. Nik Antropov, second on the team in scoring, also will miss the weekend games and likely more as he recovers from a knee injury sustained last Saturday against Buffalo.
The team also announced Thursday that hard-luck defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo sustained a torn groin muscle in Tuesday night's win on Long Island and will be out four to six weeks. Unless the Leafs pull off the miracle run to get into the playoffs, he's obviously done for the season.
Sitting 12th in the Eastern Conference and six points back of the eighth and final playoff spot, the picture looks bleak for the Leafs to say the least. Especially when one considers how well the team has played over the last month and yet there's nothing to show for it in the standings.
"I think we all understand the situation we put ourselves in," said Leafs forward Alex Steen. "With the way the conference and the league is set up, you have to be able to accept the nights where you win and you don't move up in the standings - but you stay in it. I think we've done a good job of accepting that. Staying mentally balanced the whole time has been the key to why we've been playing so much better."
Toronto was eight points back of a playoff spot in mid-February before beginning a 10-4-1 run. They've made up only two measly points in that stretch.
"The 11-12 teams that are in the push are all picking up points," said Maurice. "It's frustrating but at the same time, at least we go into these last games with a template of how we want to play because we've had some success playing a better defensive game. It took us longer to get to that game than we all had hoped.
"But we're at a point now that if we give our goaltender a chance to be the difference in the game we should be in good shape."
Toronto faces a dangerous Sabres team Friday night, one that's coming off a huge 7-4 comeback win over Tampa Bay in which they scored six third-period goals. Buffalo is only one point behind eighth-place Philadelphia and has won three straight. The Sabres can smell a playoff spot.
"They are so explosive up front," Maurice said of the Sabres, who ripped the Leafs 6-2 last Saturday at the Air Canada Centre. "They're a challenge, no question."
The Leafs may get some help with the return this weekend of forward Boyd Devereaux, who has been out since sustaining a knee injury Feb. 19 against Columbus. He re-joined his teammates in practice Thursday and Maurice said was more likely to suit up Saturday to avoid back-to-back games.
Another fresh face at practice Thursday was defenceman Staffan Kronwall, called up from the AHL Marlies for the injured Colaiacovo - the latter who limped out of the dressing room during practice for a talk with reporters. An all-too-familiar sight for the former first-round draft pick who has been limited to 21 NHL games in 2005-06, 48 in 2006-07 and 28 this year.
"Just another bump in the road," he mused.
Does he ever ask, why me?
"Too many times," said Colaiacovo. "But I'm not going to sit here and feel bad for myself. Getting through things like this continues to keep me mentally strong. My love for the game will never change. I think that's what's going to keep me motivated."
The nay-sayers have given up on him, saying he's proven too brittle to play in the NHL. He vows to show they're wrong.
"I'm coming back a new man - that's all I can say," he said. "I'm going to work my rear end off. If it's this season great - hopefully we can be part of something special - but if it's next season, I'm coming back a new man. ...
"I'm still 25 years old, I'm hoping to play 10-15 years if I can in this league. All it takes is one (healthy) year and I'll be raring to go and I'm never going to look back."