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Toronto Maple Leafs' playoff hopes dangling with nine games to go

TORONTO - There is absolutely no room for error now.

And the reality facing the Toronto Maple Leafs is that even a perfect finish to the season might not be enough to propel them into eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

"We're probably going to have to run the table and get some help," defenceman Ian White said after Toronto's 6-2 loss to Buffalo on Saturday night. "We've got (Buffalo) twice again and Boston another two times.

"We've got to show up every night and play as hard as we can and hope for a little help."

Some help arrived Sunday afternoon as the Pittsburgh Penguins hammered Philadelphia 7-1, keeping the Flyers stalled in eighth place at 80 points. The Maple Leafs are six points behind with nine games to play.

It's a lot of ground to make up.

The big question heading into Tuesday's game at Long Island will be the health of Toronto's top two forwards. Mats Sundin sat out Saturday's game with a sore groin while Nik Antropov played less than three minutes before suffering a knee injury in the first period.

It's unclear whether either will be healthy enough to play against the Islanders. The Maple Leafs could use some good news on that front because winning big games without those two players would be a tall order.

Either way, the team plans to proceed as though it is very much in the playoff picture.

"You never give up," said forward Alexei Ponikarovsky. "You can't lose hope. We have to regroup and get ready for the next game. Anything can happen at this point.

"We're not going to quit and not do anything."

In that regard, the Leafs have to see the loss to Buffalo as a missed opportunity. The Sabres were playing for a second straight night and contending with more than their share of injuries.

But Toronto seemed to lack the urgency that had become a staple of its recent solid play.

"I don't think we came to play as hard as we should have," said White. "It didn't feel like we were as determined as we needed to be tonight. These two points were critical, but we let them slide away ...

"You want to come out and be flying like a playoff game. For us, this should've been a Game 6 or Game 7 situation."

They have to view each remaining game as exactly that.

Winning the last nine games would give Toronto 92 points on the season - the same number that the East's eighth-place team finished with the last two years.

If there's any small glimmer of hope to be had it's that eighth-place Philadelphia is struggling with just two wins in its last eight games. Toronto does not play the Flyers again this season.

But the Maple Leafs do have two more games with Buffalo, which sits one point behind Philadelphia and could move into a playoff spot this week.

Toronto saw some of its early-season problems resurface on Saturday against the Sabres, particularly defensively. Toronto turned the puck over too often and the speedy Buffalo forwards made them pay.

Fixing problems like that will be the team's focus rather than concentrating on what its opponents are doing.

"The only thing we can do is worry about ourselves and keep winning hockey games," said forward Jason Blake. "Tonight we took a step back to our old ways. We can't do that."

Many started writing Toronto off months ago but the team has remained on the fringes of contention by going 11-6-1 since early February.

They'll need something special from here on in to avoid missing the playoffs in the three straight years for the first time since 1925-'27.

The players are hoping to get help.

"Hopefully we'll get healthy and get people back in the lineup," said Ponikarovsky.


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