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Leafs perservere through rocky start

Monday, 06.01.2003 / 12:00 AM / News
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Leafs perservere through rocky start
TORONTO (CP) - Pat Quinn sees two distinct parts to the first half of the Toronto Maple Leafs' season: the first where his team laboured through the worst start in his five-year tenure and the more recent one when his team could do no wrong.

When the Leafs play their 41st game of the season Tuesday night at home to Boston, they'll have a chance to go a season-high six games over .500 with a win over the struggling Bruins.

It's been a long road back to respectability for the playoff-bound Leafs. It had started so wrong with an ugly off-season that included the departure of Curtis Joseph, the blasting of his replacement Ed Belfour and the criticism of Quinn for failing to sign any big-name free agents.

"It was a tough start. There was a lot of doubt," the Leafs coach and general manager said. "There's a couple of yo-yos here in town that give you a hard time and probably cause some heartache. `We're stupid this and we're stupid that.' And we ended up not very good early on so it justified their position I guess."

Pat Quinn is glad to see his team turn things around.
Graig Abel Photography
"The problem is that not too much of that was factual, not too much of it was hard work."

The knives were out early when Toronto sputtered out to a 2-6-1 start, punctuated by a 4-3 home loss to the New York Rangers on Oct. 25. Should Quinn still have both jobs? Was Belfour washed up? Was Toronto's defence really that bad?

They fell to a season-low 6-10-2 after a 2-1 loss to Detroit on Nov. 16. It looked like the Leafs were doomed.

"Once the season started we didn't execute very well," Quinn said. "We had a goaltender trying to adjust to a new team. The defence had changed a little bit. And we had a number of players that didn't have the kind of start we thought they would."

And Quinn says his team thought it could just come out and play classic offensive hockey and not worry about picking up a man in the neutral zone.

"We were just going to waltz through and we were going to have the puck all the time and we were going to be great," Quinn says. "Well, we found out pretty fast that we weren't great. We were lousy then and lousy in our own mind. We were looking for somebody to save us. When that didn't happen we started to play better. In the last 20 games we've been a pretty good hockey team."

Pretty good indeed. Toronto is 12-5-2-1 in the last 20 games, pushing its record to 20-15-4-1. Home ice in the playoffs is now a target.

It all starts with Belfour, the 37-year-old veteran netminder who turned early-season boos at the Air Canada Centre to heartfelt chants of "Eddie, Eddie!" with his heart-stopping play. He's a worthy candidate for the Vezina Trophy with his minuscule 1.98 goals-against average and sensational .930 save percentage - both among the top three in both categories for NHL starters.

It's safe to say the Leafs would not be over. 500 without Eddie the Eagle.

"It's been everything that I expected," Belfour said of his first half-season with the Leafs. "I'm happy to be here, it's a great hockey town. The fans are great. They really know the game. It's the biggest game in town, everyone is focused on it. And that's what I love to be part of. I always did. I really enjoy that."

Captain Mats Sundin, out at least another week with a shoulder injury, has continued his stellar play. His 35 points in 36 games are second only to winger Alex Mogilny, who has 42 points in 38 games.

After Sundin and Mogilny, the offence is bare, which means the Leafs can't go on for too long without their captain.

Darcy Tucker (22 points in 39 games, minus-10) and Alyn McCauley (six points in 36 games) have been tremendous disappointments up front while defenceman Bryan McCabe is playing his worst hockey as a Leaf. McCabe broke through last season with 17 goals, second among NHL blue-liners. But he has only one goal at the halfway point and is often a liability in his own end by making poor decisions and taking bad penalties.

All of which will remind Quinn that while his team has come a long way, there's still trouble lurking.

As for Quinn, the 59-year-old is doing just fine. He came to camp 55 pounds lighter since being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat during last spring's Eastern Conference final.

"All my checkups have been fine," Quinn said. "My heart's better than it has been in a long time. I've been holding my weight and I feel real good. So that's not an issue anymore. A year ago in the spring, it was clearly an issue."

He admits his lifestyle as an NHL coach makes it tough not to overindulge on food and drink.

"You still have the bad hours and you still have food everywhere around you. It seems like every time you turn around there's food there. But I've been working hard and what's good is that the other guys (assistant coaches, trainers) are helping. They'll slap your fingers if you're reaching too often for a Snickers."

And really, it's not a Snickers or a beer that he longs for when the job gets to him.

"No, I need a cigar. That's the one I miss," Quinn said. "I can not eat or not drink - I don't miss those. But cigars I miss."

"I think it was Mark Twain who said: `If you can't smoke a cigar in heaven than I shall not go'."
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