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Leafs go to Boston knowing every game a must win to get back into contention

TORONTO - Unless he experiences some sort of miracle rejuvenation, Darcy Tucker will finish with fewer goals and points than in any previous season since joining the Toronto Maple Leafs nearly eight years ago.

His impact on the ice has faded considerably.

Tucker has only five goals and five assists, and a minus-5 plus-minus rating in the 38 games he's played.

"I'm not worried about that," was all he'd say after practice Wednesday when asked how he feels about how he's playing. "I'm worried about winning hockey games."

He's been hurt during his career because of his physical style, and he was asked how his body is holding up to the constant punishment.

"I'm working hard to concentrate on helping this team win hockey games," was his response.

Toronto's slide to 14th in the Eastern Conference can't be explained by simply blaming general manager John Ferguson for everything that has gone wrong.

The players have to shoulder some of the responsibility, and Tucker is one who has not produced. He's 15th in team scoring, and that's just not good enough.

Coach Paul Maurice hedged when asked to comment on Tucker's contributions. He began by saying he's been moving Tucker around a lot, sending him out to play left wing one night and right wing another night.

"His play was improving," said Maurice. "He was starting to come a little bit."

Tucker started the game Tuesday, which Toronto won 5-4 over Carolina, on the top line with Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov. He didn't get a shot on goal.

"Because he wants to play so well and, when he gets a chance to play with Mats Sundin, he wants to produce . . . he overhandled the puck at times and it didn't come natural or easy for him," said Maurice. "At the same time, the reason we scored the first goal was because he was standing between two defencemen and they were beating down on him and their goalie never saw the puck.

"So, there are other things that he continues to bring. If his hands smooth out, I think he'll be fine."

The mood around the team was a bit lighter the day after the much-needed win, but Tucker was curt when asked to describe what it did for the team's psyche.

"It got us two points," he replied.

That's it?

"We've got to work hard and continue to work hard," he said. "It's one hockey game.

"Obviously, amidst everything that was going on, it was a good win for us, but we have to put together win after win after win here to get ourselves back in the playoff race and that's all we can concentrate on. The more we worry about all the other stuff and psyches and mental attitudes, the more it distracts us from what we're trying to accomplish and that's getting two points every single night that we play now."

The Leafs play the Bruins in Boston on Thursday night.

"We have to get in and get on the body and do some things without the puck that will make us better as the game goes on," said Tucker. 'We have to play a patient style of hockey, but that doesn't mean we're not going to play physical and go in there and bump early in the game.

"I think the key for us is to just stay within ourselves and make sure we're looking after one period at a time."

Antropov left eight minutes into the third period with a sore left leg but skated in practice Wednesday and is expected to play in Boston.

"Boston has outplayed us badly, actually, in the last two or three games," said Antropov. "We know what kind of game they're going to play - boring game, grinding game - and whoever is more patient with the puck is going to win the game. It's a big game."

They all are. Ferguson said before the win over the Hurricanes that his team needed to win 25 of its remaining 37 games to earn a playoff berth. One down and 24 to go - with only 36 left now.

"Everybody's now, you could say, relieved, but it's only one game," Antropov said of the 5-4 win. "We've got plenty to go and we're going to work hard to get the next win."

It's generally accepted that Ferguson and Maurice are gone if the Leafs fall further out of contention.

"It's difficult," Tucker replied when asked if he feels for Ferguson. "You know what, John is a good hockey person and a good man and he works hard at his job.

"As players, you can't control things that are out of your sight lines. You've got to control what's right in front of you and, for us, that's playing hard in practice first off and hard in the games. All that other stuff, we can't worry about. We've got to concentrate on the 20 guys or 22 guys in our dressing room and work hard for them."

Alex Steen missed Tuesday's game with a flu and wasn't at practice Wednesday. But he went to Boston and Maurice hopes to have him back in the lineup Thursday.

"We're washing hands and doing all those things and you'd prefer not having to get on an airplane right now," said Maurice. "There's not a whole lot we can do about it . . . it's a fear.

"It's one of those things you can't control. If a guy starts to feel a little bit off we put him in his own room, and there's no kissing in the locker room."

The cast is off Bryan McCabe's broken left hand but he's weeks away from returning to the lineup. Another injured defenceman, Carlo Colaiacovo, "is still in pain and still not able to fully flex the knee so he's still not back on ice," said Maurice.


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