TORONTO - No Mats Sundin. No Nik Antropov. No chance?
"We have plenty of good players on our hockey team to win that game tomorrow even though I'm not there," Sundin said Monday. Brave words from a great captain but a betting man doesn't like the way things are shaping up for the Leafs as they try to win at least eight of their final nine games in the regular season to have any chance of getting into the playoffs.
At least they face a struggling New York squad that's won only one of eight games in March on Tuesday night in Long Island.
Toronto is six points out of the playoffs and the air seems to be have been sucked out of their never-say-die mission with Sundin and Antropov limping. Sundin leads the Leafs with 77 points (32-45) in 72 games while Antropov is second in team scoring with 52 points (26-56) in 70 games.
"This team over the years has been able to win games without Mats, but there's no replacing his abilities," Leafs coach Paul Maurice said after practice. "And Nik for that matter I think is underrated in terms of what he does for our team. We're going to miss those two guys. ... But this gives other guys opportunities."
Kyle Wellwood skated on a line between Alex Steen and Alexei Ponikarovsky at practice Monday, although Maurice said not to assume that would necessarily be the case for Tuesday's game. Matt Stajan stayed between Darcy Tucker and Jason Blake. With Sundin and Antropov out, that's the Leafs attack.
It could be more of a defensive affair Tuesday night, also taking into account the Islanders' offensive struggles.
"If we've got to win it 1-0 then we're going to have to play to do that," said Maurice.
Sundin and Antropov skated before their teammates went out for practice. The captain went for 30 minutes while Antropov lasted about three. Sundin will miss his second consecutive start with a groin injury. Antropov left Saturday's 6-2 loss to Buffalo with a knee injury. They both could possibly return sometime this weekend, either Friday at Buffalo or Saturday at Ottawa.
But then again, maybe not.
Maurice said further testing over the weekend revealed a small tear in Sundin's groin - which means anywhere from "10 days to two and a half weeks" from the time of injury last Wednesday in Philadelphia. Ten days would mean a return this weekend.
"Fortunately he's a real fast healer," said Maurice. "We know he's not playing tomorrow night but the window would be there for him to play on the weekend. The upside is he feels a lot better today than he did three or four days ago."
Sundin simply does't know when he'll return.
"I'm going to try to skate again tomorrow morning and we'll go from there. It'll be day by day," he said. "We'll see what level I can get skating. I'll try to play as soon as I can. I hope Friday, but we'll see."
It's just not an injury where he can simply suck it up and play given the importance of the games right now.
"As soon as I can play, I'll play," Sundin said. "But I need to have the leg to a certain point so I can use it on the ice. Otherwise I can't be out there competing. This is the National Hockey League, you got to get to a certain point if you want to play."
The biggest problem right now?
"It's skating, in terms of starts and stops or any kind of turn. I can't use my left leg more than 50 per cent."
The Flyers still own the eighth and final playoff spot in the East with 80 points but they're stumbling. Buffalo is only one point back at 79 after a huge four-point weekend. Plucky Washington is next at 78 points but must survive a six-game road trip beginning Tuesday night at Nashville. Red-hot Florida, having played one more game than the Caps, is 11th with 78 points while the Leafs are 12th at 74.
Despite a 9-4-1 run in their last 14 games, Toronto hasn't made up any real ground in the last month. They were eight points out on Feb. 15 before their 14-game run - now they're six.
"We've been coming on really strong and shown a lot of character and heart over the last six weeks so it's tough to watch from the sidelines now," said Sundin. "But we have a good enough team to win that game tomorrow and we have a good enough team to be a playoff team.
"I think with the group of guys we have we can win these games."
Maurice has the challenge of getting his players in the right frame of mind. Saturday's loss and the injuries to Sundin and Antropov have brought the team down.
"I thought by the end of practice today we did have a good feeling," said Maurice. "The guys began to talk and bark at each other and have fun on the ice."
Notes: With Antropov out, the Leafs recalled forward Alex Foster, 23, from the AHL Marlies. He could make his NHL debut Tuesday night. The former Bowling Green State University product has 38 points (15-23) in 56 games with the Marlies this season. ... Injured forward John Pohl returned to his native Minnesota to attend to a family matter.