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Wendell FOX

It's Playoffs time for the Leafs

How far will the Leafs go?  

5 members have voted

  1. 1. How far will the Leafs go?

    • first round
      1
    • second round
      2
    • Eastern finals
      1
    • Stanley Cup
      0
    • Win the Cup
      1


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Leafs budding

at right time

By Bob Snow

Special to NHL.com

April 7, 2004

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The front page of the sports section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Feb. 9 showed a smiling Gary Roberts joking with West netminder Dwayne Roloson at center ice at the conclusion of the 54th All-Star Game. The Minnesota Wild netminder had robbed Roberts on a breakaway minutes earlier after Roberts had registered a goal and an assist.

There won't be another photo of Roberts chatting with a Western Conference goaltender for some time -- unless....

Unless Roberts, Mats Sundin, Bryan McCabe, Ed Belfour and company don't give up and get to drink from the silver cup in June, bringing Lord Stanley back to Toronto for the 12th time in the team's storied history, and the first since 1967.

If such a celebration occurs, the roots of their success might well be traced to the morning of March 25th when the Leafs limped into Boston after one of their worst defeats of the season. Make it the worst. Losing by like 7-1 scores at home to Philadelphia and Ottawa in November and January, respectively, can be chalked up to the ebb and flow of the season. Being lit up by Tampa Bay, 7-2, however, at Air Canada Centre with two weeks left in the season can erase regular-season goals and the necessary momentum for a long playoff run.

#4 TOR vs. #5 OTT

Game 1: Thu., 7 p.m. ET

Video: NHL Highlight Machine

Season Stats: TOR | OTT

Analysis: Complete Series Preview

Maple Leafs official web site

Senators official web site

Trailing Boston by three points for the Northeast Division title and clinging to home ice hopes in the playoffs, the game that evening was more than a four-point affair. And Roberts and the Leafs knew it, prompting one of those closed-door team meetings.

"What meeting?" Roberts chirped back at reporters three times when pressed to explain the topics of conversation that were rumored to have overtones about the undercurrent of how to right a listing Leaf ship. "It's the same discussion we have after every game. No big deal. We realize tonight's a big game in our division."

"I don't know if it was the lowest point, but it wasn't nice," said coach Pat Quinn about the Tampa Bay loss. "You've worked all year long with that group of 23 or whatever, and there's going to be some adversity along the way. You can't let that affect your goals and when you are asked to step up in your ice time or duties you have, then you do that."

That "group of 23 or whatever" indeed stepped up that night with a 3-0 Bruin blanking. Ed Belfour's 73rd career whitewashing narrowed the Bruins' lead to one point in the conference. And sent the Leafs stepping over every opponent since, as they prepare for home ice and a best-of-seven set with the Senators in the first round.

"The other night, our best players weren't very good," said Quinn after the Bruins win. "But the veteran players who have been through the ups and downs in their life know how to get it back much sooner and they don't let themselves drift too long."

"If you're a good team and we consider ourselves a good team," said veteran Joe Nieuwendyk who has won Stanley Cups with Calgary, Dallas and New Jersey, "you have to be able to respond. It's an attitude thing absolutely, there's no question."

"This is the first time in my career," said new Leaf Ron Francis, "I've seen so many teams bunched so closely at this point in the season. These guys showed a lot of resiliency in the way they bounced back from the other night and battled against a good team on the road in a tough place to win."

That battling continued the next four games with three wins and a tie, including two Belfour shutouts on the road to end the season, 2-0 at Buffalo, and the 6-0 drubbing of the Senators the last game of the season to clinch home ice in the first round, The Leaf surge nearly copped the division title, but Boston pulled out a last-game win at New Jersey to edge out Toronto, 104 ?103 in total points. The win against Buffalo established a new season-high 101 points in team history; Belfour's 75th shutout in the final was also his 435th career victory, tying him with Jacques Plante for third all-time. Sundin set the course for these last two weeks -- and the upcoming postseason ending at 45-24-10-3.

"We said it after (that 7-2 loss to Tampa Bay), a lot of teams it might affect, but we're a veteran group and we knew what we had to do tonight. We had a simple game plan and for 60 minutes we played pretty hard. We want to build off our performance tonight. It's key for us to play this type of hockey and be entering the playoffs on a positive note."

Ed Belfour was strong down the stretch for the Leafs and took home the NHL Defensive Player of the Week honor.

One loss in their last eight games, three shutouts, and home ice entering the playoffs appears to be a pretty positive note. Any team with a veteran core of Sundin, McCabe, Roberts, Nieuwendyk and Belfour, a new complement of Francis and Brian Leetch, and the hopeful return of Owen Nolan, Darcy Tucker, and Mikael Renberg from injury, should still be skating when June bugs take to flight.

"You like to think there's a sense of urgency every night at this time of year," said Roberts. "There's definitely no easy games in the playoffs. But everybody's pulled the rope in the same direction and (we're) getting better results. For us the real key is to get home ice and play in Toronto."

Roberts went 11 years between All-Star games. His career twice neared the end of the rope. It's been 15 years since he won a Stanley Cup with Calgary.

"The game can be taken away from you in a heartbeat," said Roberts. "I've been fortunate to get another opportunity after my neck injuries.

"I won a Stanley Cup when I was 23, and said, 'well that was easy, how many more are we going to win?' I'm 37 and haven't had a sniff since. But we've got a lot of leaders and character in our dressing room. I know we're an older group, but I think we can do something special this year."

The city of Toronto hasn't had a sniff -- or a sip -- since '67.

Said Quinn on March 25: "We have to deal with that emotion of not being happy with ourselves, push it aside and hope it doesn't happen again. At least not for the rest of this season."

If so, the 2004 Stanley Cup will be inscribed with M. Sundin, G. Roberts, P. Quinn and about 23 others. And preceded by a few handshakes with the Western goaltender.

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