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Leafs are inching closer to playoff spot but now is not time to be satisfied

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

The Leafs are one of the hottest teams in the NHL, but they are not among the Eastern Conference's top eight because some of the teams a few points ahead of them are just as hot.

The race for playoff spots is so frantic that coach Paul Maurice has no fear there'll be any temptation for his players to feel satisfied with the recent success.

"What's going to happen is that one of these teams, and it might be us, is going to get pounded one of these nights because it happens to everyone at one point," Maurice said after practice Monday. "The one that rebounds the best is the one that is going to survive."

The players understand that it'll take a concerted effort to gain ground when, with all the overtime and shootout games, three points are being awarded after many games.

"I remember when, if you were eight or nine games over .500, you were pretty sure you were going to get in," Maurice recalled. "At least you felt your were.

"Now, to get comfortable you've got to get into the teens. Even a few years ago, there were teams in January that were selling (players) because it was over. That's not the case anymore. That means every night you're getting a fired-up team (to face)."

The Leafs ran out of time last year and missed the playoffs by three points. They've got 29 games left this time.

"We still have a little room," said defenceman Tomas Kaberle. "We have to keep at it a game at a time and keep playing a relaxed game - nothing special, just go to the net and see what happens at the end of the night."

The team's defensive diligence, the play of goaltender Andrew Raycroft and the leadership of Mats Sundin have been vital factors in the overall improvement.

Also, injuries that forced the call-up of farmhands from the AHL's Toronto Marlies presented the Leafs with a lineup that is in fact best suited to play the close-checking style Maurice and Sundin prescribed all along.

"We know that if we open it up we're going to get scored on," said Kaberle. "When we take care of our own net, we have a way better chance of winning games.

"We've been pretty confident in front of Razor. We have confidence in him."

Raycroft earned first-star recognition from the NHL for his play last week.

"We're not winning solely because of Andrew but we couldn't win without him," said Maurice.

The coach was asked if he's ever seen Raycroft have a temper tantrum.

"Somebody stole his parking spot one day and . . . but, no, he's a pretty even-keeled guy," Maurice said in dropping his stab at making something up. "I know he's had his moments where he's been upset but I don't think he needs to be breaking sticks here."

When the Leafs return from a game Thursday in Nashville, they'll play 15 of their last 28 games at home, where they have a poorer record (11-12-3) than they have on the road (15-9-3).

"We need to get our home record up," said Raycroft.

Maurice anticipates they will.

"I think you're going to see our game improve at home," he said. "I've got enough confidence in the way we're playing that I believe we're going to be able to bring it home."

The top six D - Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Hal Gill, Pavel Kubina, Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo - are working together like a well-oiled machine.

"We've been pretty solid for a month and a half or two months now," said Maurice.

"We're a little tighter in our own end, a little stronger defensively, and Andrew has been playing really well," said Gill. "Things are kind of clicking.

"We have a lot of confidence. We feel good out there and we're not hurting ourselves."

Sundin has been ornery of late, and flexing all the muscles on his six-foot-five Swedish frame.

"It's really important that your leadership shows a certain intensity level," said Maurice. "I think he's done that.

"It's a lot easier to go in and encourage your hockey club to finish checks and be physical when your captain is doing it. There's nobody walking down the hall saying, 'Hey, that's not my game."'

Six-foot-four Ukrainian Alexei Ponikarovsky and six-foot-six Kazakh Nik Antropov having been skating on Sundin's wings. It's an imposing unit.

John Pohl has proved he's worthy of full-time NHL employment after four years in the minors, and he's looking forward to skating against the team that gave up on him - the Blues (8 p.m. ET).

"When Mike Peca went down, it was thrown on him to fill those minutes, and he's done an exceptional job," said Maurice.

There are two specific areas in which the coach would like to see improvement.

"I'd like to see our transition from offence to defence become instinctive," he said. "Our penalty kill - it's been better but you're always looking for those numbers to improve.

"Other than that, we've played pretty consistently."

The Blues have come alive under new coach Andy Murray so it won't be a leisurely skate for the Leafs, and two days later they'll face the league's overall leader in Nashville.

The Leafs will be at home Saturday against Pittsburgh and next Tuesday against the New York Islanders.



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