Neither participated in practice Monday as the Toronto Maple Leafs – what’s left of them – prepared to face the visiting Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. ET) without them. Also as yet unavailable are Alexei Ponikarovsky, whose shoulder hasn’t healed sufficiently, Nik Antropov, who hasn’t completed the rehab on a sprained ankle, and Mike Peca, whose broken leg rules him out until spring.
The main reasons why the Leafs have managed to hover around .500 despite the loss of five of their top nine forwards are captain Mats Sundin’s determined play, Alex Steen’s rediscovery of a scoring touch and the solid play of recruits called up from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
Coach Paul Maurice patches together attacking units from game to game.
“We’ll just really focus on the 20 guys who are putting the jersey on as our team,” says Maurice.
Beginning Thursday at Buffalo, Toronto plays nine of 11 games on the road. It’ll be the toughest stretch of the schedule for a team that has 44 points in 43 games and is clinging to the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
It’s make-or-break time.
“The (injured) guys have been working hard off the ice to get back as soon as they can,” said Steen. “It looks like in a couple of weeks we’ll start getting some fresh bodies back.”
In the meantime, Boyd Devereaux, Kris Newberry, Ben Ondrus and Erik Westrum are filling in, and the veterans are rising to the occasion.
“We’ve got really good efforts from players who are now hauling a lot more ice than they’re used to,” said Maurice.
The two most important injured forwards, Tucker and Wellwood, are unlikely to reappear until at least the end of the week.
“They’re not in a position to skate yet,” said Maurice. “We’re trying to be as cautious as we can because we don’t want either injury to be longer that it has to be.”
Concerning Tucker, “The swelling and the pain he went through . . . it wasn’t something we felt he could do game in and game out,” said Maurice.
There is no time frame for Tucker’s return, he added.
“I think that we’ll see Ponikarovsky then probably Tucker,” he guessed.
Wellwood’s status also is uncertain.
“He’s had stretches where he’s felt a little better one day then he didn’t feel quite as good the next,” said Maurice. “There hasn’t been a situation where he’s had six or seven days where he’s feeling great.
“It hasn’t gotten better quickly enough.”
Maurice lauds the role of Marlies coach Greg Gilbert in preparing players who can step right into the NHL. Gilbert and his staff have done “an incredible job,” said Maurice.
“They’ve done a better job than the guy who was there last year,” he added, poking fun at himself before getting serious again.
“It’s clearly the difference between us being able to survive right now and being in some serious trouble.”
Notes: The players made their annual visit to the Hospital For Sick Children after practice . . . Jeff O’Neill is not setting any scoring records but is plus-2 on the plus-minus scale is much better than the minus-19 he finished with last season . . . Tucker’s minus-13 is worst on the team. Hal Gill’s plus-7 is best . . . Andrew Raycroft’s save percentage is .896. Anything under .900 is average goaltending . . . After the Thursday date in Buffalo, the Leafs are at home Saturday against Vancouver before heading onto the road for games against Tampa Bay, Florida and Pittsburgh before the all-star break. They’re at home Jan. 27 against Montreal then hit the road again for games against Carolina, the Rangers, Ottawa, St. Louis and Nashville.