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With tough stretch looming, Maple Leafs still have big mountain to climb

Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews, left, celebrates his first period goal with teammate Marian Hossa in front of a sprawling Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer during NHL hockey action in Toronto Saturday, March 5, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

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Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews, left, celebrates his first period goal with teammate Marian Hossa in front of a sprawling Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer during NHL hockey action in Toronto Saturday, March 5, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

TORONTO - After climbing a mountain, the Toronto Maple Leafs are discovering the peak is still way off in the distance.

Even though the team has made up 10 points in the Eastern Conference playoff race since the all-star break, the margin for error remains extremely small.

A big reminder came with Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. The defending Stanley Cup champions overwhelmed the mistake-prone Leafs early in a game Toronto coach Ron Wilson labelled a learning experience.

It left the team stalled as eighth-place Buffalo moved five points ahead Sunday with a 3-2 overtime victory in Minnesota. The gap isn't insurmountable, but Toronto needs to win 11 of its remaining 16 games to reach 89 points (88 made it last season)—no small task.

"We can't right now worry about (the) past," forward Mikhail Grabovski said after Saturday's game. "We need to think about (the) future and worry about the next game. Because every game for us is very important.

"Every point right now (is) huge."

After playing at Long Island on Tuesday, the Leafs open a crucial three-game homestand. Conference-leading Philadelphia visits Thursday, Buffalo is in town Saturday and Tampa Bay arrives March 14.

By then, it should be a little clearer where the team stands.

Wilson is intent on riding Reimer as long as the playoffs remain in view. The rookie goaltender was pulled after allowing five goals to the Blackhawks on 19 shots, but will be back in net against the Islanders.

It will be his 13th appearance in the last 14 games—a stretch unlike anything the 22-year-old has previously seen as a pro.

"I haven't played this many games since probably my second year of junior," said Reimer. "It is a little bit different because usually I'm used to playing 50-50. ...

"You learn how to take a break and rest on your off days so that you're fully prepared and energized for the games."

His biggest challenge on a day off is trying not to spend much time thinking about the playoff chase.

"For about two minutes I can," he said with a laugh.

Wilson was initially reluctant to praise the young goaltender—famously suggesting in January that a statue was being planned in his honour after a good performance—but has since softened on that stance.

In fact, the coach gives much of the credit for the recent turnaround to Reimer.

"Since the beginning of January when Reims got here and started playing in a bunch of those games it's kind of built the confidence of our team," said Wilson.

A few warts remain. The team's power play went 0-for-5 against Chicago—the fourth straight game it failed to connect—and Wilson juggled his forward lines at even strength, giving Darryl Boyce some time in Tyler Bozak's normal spot between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.

Bozak (minus-25) and Kessel (minus-22) have been the team's biggest defensive liabilities this season and the coach was looking for some better play in the team's own zone.

"They're on for so many damn goals against," said Wilson. "Look at their plus-minus. I had to change things up."

Early turnovers against the Blackhawks cost them dearly. Defenceman Carl Gunnarsson essentially passed the puck to Chicago's Marian Hossa for the opening goal at 1:10 and a turnover from Lupul three minutes later led directly to the second goal.

Just like that, they were in a hole they couldn't get out of despite playing better in the final 40 minutes.

"I think we shot ourselves in the foot," said defenceman Luke Schenn. "I think we tried to get a little bit too fancy there at times."

The fact the team is even in a playoff race is a small achievement in itself. Many had long ago written them off, particularly after a 7-0 loss against the New York Rangers on Jan. 19 that left them 12 points out of eighth.

A 10-3-4 stretch over the last month has given Wilson more confidence in his players.

"I don't find myself holding my breath so much any more late in the game," he said. "I know we'll get a save or we'll get a big play."

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