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Darcy Tucker hopes to help get the Maple Leafs back on track

TORONTO - Darcy Tucker has a solution for the Toronto Maple Leafs' defensive problems.

The gritty winger has sat out the last seven games with a knee injury and finds himself with a different perspective on things after watching the team play from the press box.

"Defence is all hard work and you kind of see that from above a little bit more than you would from just watching it on TV or being down in the dressing room," Tucker said Wednesday after practice.

A comment like that should sound awfully good to coach Paul Maurice, who desperately wants his team shore up defensively.

No other NHL squad has allowed more goals against than Toronto. In fact, very few are even close.

Maurice has his own solution to the problem - practice, practice and even more practice. The Maple Leafs are one of the highest scoring teams in the NHL so the coach hopes to make them a well-rounded bunch by hammering them with defensive drills.

"In a perfect world, we'll take this team as an offensive-minded team and teach it to make the right decisions defensively," said Maurice. "It'll be a painful process for them.

"But then you have the chance to be a very, very good team."

The Maple Leafs should also get better with the return of Tucker and defenceman Bryan McCabe, who has missed six games with a groin problem. Both would like to play Friday night in Buffalo or Saturday night at home against the New York Rangers.

They'll join a lineup that already welcomed back forwards Kyle Wellwood and Mark Bell for Tuesday's 5-1 loss in Ottawa.

Maurice was as animated during the Senators game as he's been during his entire tenure in Toronto and threatened to shake up his lineup afterwards. It was a stance he stuck to on Wednesday.

"We've got 15 forwards on that ice right now," said Maurice. "Play hard or don't play. We'll have some room to move guys around. We haven't had that opportunity yet this year."

The Maple Leafs led the NHL in man games lost to injury last season and have been far from healthy this year. Even if Tucker and McCabe return this weekend, Toronto will still be without defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo (knee).

But that should be of little concern, according to Tucker. He thinks the 6-7-3 Maple Leafs will see improvement if each player in the lineup plays as hard as he can every game.

"We're fighting for that consistency like a lot of teams are right now," said Tucker. "Hopefully over the next month or so we can find our overall team identity with everybody back in the lineup."

After breaking down the game tape, Maurice was able to find a few positives from the loss in Ottawa.

The defensive breakdowns were easier to pinpoint than earlier in the season, when Maurice says he would often have to rewind the tape several times to keep track of all the things that went wrong.

"Fewer fires, but it's still warm in here," said Maurice.

The coach also liked seeing Bell mix it up with Chris Neil late in the game after the Senators agitator had taken a run at Leafs rookie Jiri Tlusty.

"Jiri's a young man and needs to know that there are people out there on our bench that are going to get into that fight first," said Maurice. "That was a good sign."

All and all, the Maple Leafs have seemed in good spirits despite the many concerns of their fans. Radio call-in shows have been busy all season with complaints about the inconsistent team.

The players genuinely seem to believe that a turnaround is coming.

"We're all grown men in here," said forward Alex Steen. "We've played the game for so long. We know what needs to be done and we know what we're doing wrong. We need to get back on the saddle.

"We can't get too down on ourselves when we let in a couple goals. We need to bounce back quicker."

Note: Maple Leafs forward Simon Gamache cleared waivers on Wednesday and was assigned to the AHL Marlies. He had two goals and four points in 11 games with the big club.


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