Originally created 05/16/02

Leafs limping into conference finals



RALEIGH, N.C. -- How much longer can the Toronto Maple Leafs limp through the Stanley Cup playoffs?

After surviving their second straight seven-game series by beating Ottawa with seven regulars out of the lineup, the Maple Leafs now face the streaking Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals.

Pat Quinn said captain Mats Sundin, out with a broken wrist since the team's playoff opener against the New York Islanders, won't be back for the start of the Carolina series Thursday night. Other injured players such as Garry Valk and Jyrki Lumme remain day-to-day decisions.

The Toronto coach wondered Wednesday how long his club can go without a full deck.

"In a seven-game series you don't want to forfeit games," Quinn said. "It's a difficult situation. If you have to go deeper into your roster to find players to play eventually that will catch up to you."

Still, the Hurricanes are not underestimating the hobbled Maple Leafs, who haven't been to the Cup finals since winning it in 1967.

"Depth can only take you so far and character kicks in after that," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "It takes a mental toll, losing guys like Sundin. But it says a lot about the leadership in their room. It also says quite a bit about Pat (Quinn) and the job he does keeping that room together in a (city) where everything gets sent through the washing machine five times.

"The thing that scared you most about Montreal was how they got there and the thing that scares you most about Toronto is how they got there. When you invest enough into a situation, you very likely will fight a lot harder to keep it, and they've paid such a huge price to get here."

The Hurricanes, who have never been this far in the postseason in the 23-year history of the franchise, are the fresher team, having beaten New Jersey and Montreal in six games each.

"Carolina has been sitting here waiting for us," Toronto's Gary Roberts said.

Carolina is also playing its best, having outscored the Canadiens 17-3 over the final 140 minutes.

"They look real good," Quinn said. "Nothing has upset their chemistry and their lines. They appear confident. They beat two pretty good hockey teams, especially an experienced one in New Jersey."

Toronto's top player so far in the playoffs has been Roberts, the former Carolina forward who left two seasons ago to go play in Canada.

The 36-year-old Roberts is playing the best postseason hockey of his career. His 17 points in 13 games is second in the 2002 playoffs to Colorado's Peter Forsberg.

"Right now things are happening for him," Quinn said. "The pucks are going in, he's around the puck and he's around the people who have the puck. It's one of those times athletes have where everything seems right, everything seems in place.

"We hear that athletes have to raise their level at playoff time, but he seems to have found another gear, even though we all thought he played in high gear all the time."

Roberts, like many of the Maple Leafs, is bruised and battered, sporting a nice shiner from the series with the Senators. But he's ready to get back into action against his former team.

"You can play in this league a long time and never get the opportunity to play in the Eastern or Western finals," Roberts said. "To realize you're in the final four is exciting. I know what the Final Four is like around here in basketball, it's pretty exciting. The guys can taste in on both sides."

Roberts remains close with Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford, Maurice and several players, but it will be all business for this series.

"If you could hand out an MVP of the playoffs right now he would probably be the guy to get it," said Jeff O'Neill, one of Roberts' closest friends on the Hurricanes.

"Three or four games there in a row he single-handedly won games for them. He's a guy we have to key on and pay close attention to."

"I just hope we're still friends when it's done," Roberts said.