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Strange new world looms for the Maple Leafs

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Goalie James Reimer and the Leafs could have a rare playoff date with their arch-rivals from Montreal.

Shootouts. James Reimer doesn't care for them.

Toronto's No. 1 goaltender has played in five of them this year and his Maple Leafs have lost every one.

"It's a good thing we won't have to worry about them soon," Reimer said on Wednesday night after his team dropped a shootout, 3-2, to the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden. "No shootouts in the playoffs."

Wait, what was that word again?

Playoffs? Can't you just hear former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora shouting, "You kidding me? Playoffs?"

After all, these are the Maple Leafs.

It has been nine long years since Toronto has appeared in a postseason game and 46 since it has won the Stanley Cup, the league's longest active drought. Those were the days of Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Tim Horton and the Original Six, when expansion into Philadelphia, Buffalo and Vancouver was still a far-flung concept, much less Tampa, Dallas and two failed cracks at Atlanta. Future Hall-of-Famers Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower didn't do shootouts and nobody wore a helmet. It was a different era. Heck, a different Ice Age.

"Our fans are hungry for a winner," says Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, "and as far as playoffs go, they can taste it. It's been too long."

Hey, even that 2003-04 Leafs club that made it as far as the Eastern Conference semi-final featured players who are already enshrined down the block on Toronto's Yonge Street in the Hockey Hall-of Fame: Mats Sundin, Brian Leetch, Ed Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk and Ron Francis. Yes, last November Forbes Magazine may have listed the Leafs as the NHL's first $1 billion franchise (compare that to the lowest valued St. Louis Blues at $130 million), but dollar signs haven't translated to titles or even playoff revenue.

With 49 points in 40 games this year, Toronto sits in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, three points ahead of struggling Ottawa and the surging New York Islanders, and seven behind fourth-place Boston, which has some injury issues, so that's the good news. The other news -- maybe good, maybe bad -- is that these Leafs have no idea what the rigors of late-spring hockey can be like.

Neither Reimer nor backup Ben Scrivens has appeared in the postseason. No member of Toronto's roster has as many as 40 games of playoff experience and the club's combined resume is 206 games. Consider that Martin Brodeur, whose Devils are among the teams scrambling for one of the last Eastern berths, has appeared in 205.

"We know it will be a new experience for us," says Reimer, talking as if the extra games are a done deal, "but how do you get experience without, you know, getting experience?"

If that sounds like a good riddle, well, Leafs fans and players are often more familiar with enigmas than playoff games. The franchise practically imploded under the stingy and vengeful eye of owner Harold Ballard in the 1970s and '80s, but the Leafs eventually recovered well enough to reach their conference finals four times between 1993 and 2002. Those tantalizingly close encounters with the chance to play for the Cup were followed by two relatively quick outs, then nothing but early tee times. And on the eve of this lockout-shortened season, Toronto's management suddenly axed general manager Brian Burke, who put most of the current club together.

PHOTOS:Toronto's Maple Laughs

Now a part-time scout with the Anaheim Ducks, Burke should be proud of the emergence of forward Nazem Kadri, whose 40 points and robust +17 rating point to one of the league's true breakout seasons. And Phil Kessel is starting to fill the net after some hiccups earlier this season. He had a pair of two-goal games during the home-and-home series against the Rangers in which Toronto posted a 4-3 win before its shootout loss.

"He's a sniper," says forward James van Riemsdyk. "Those guys are streaky. Sometimes you can't buy a goal. Other times, they just seem to go in for you."

They have gone in for the Leafs a lot this season. Through Thursday night, only four teams had scored more goals than Toronto's 123 -- the Penguins (135), Blackhawks (124), Canadiens (124) and Lightning (126 -- how did Tampa Bay get in there?). The inconsistent Kessel will be critical to a prolonged playoff run.

"You see how upset he gets when he doesn't get one," van Riemsdyk says. "He slams the door pretty hard. We know that look. You see it and right away you're thinking, 'OK, watch out for the door. Don't stick a hand in there.'"

Support players such as forwards Joe Colborne and Ryan Hamilton have joined the big club and filled gaps when needed, and stay-at-home backliners Ryan O'Byrne and Mark Fraser (+15) have provided some extra thump. Defense, especially late in games, has been crucial as the Leafs have played in 14 that were decided by one goal (not counting the dreaded shootouts) and won 11 of them. Only the vaunted Blackhawks have been more successful, with 12 such wins.

Toronto also has the NHL's third-best penalty-killing unit (87.2 percent). Yet, at times, the Leafs struggle to generate chances. They rank 22nd in shots per game (27.2), and against the Rangers they went a span of 24 minutes without managing even one.

"Stats are for you guys," Carlyle bristled when asked about his team's power outage.

On the other side, the Leafs are also 25th in shots allowed (1,267 -- or 31.7 per game). "We go through rough patches sometimes where it seems we let other teams take the play to us a bit," says van Riemsdyk. "You need to play 60-minute games to be successful in this league."

You also need to be healthy, especially heading down the stretch of a shortened season. Toronto is relatively free of injury, though productive forward Joffrey Lupul missed the game in New York because of a concussion and is listed as day-to-day. Otherwise, the team is clear, and there is a sense that in these days of parity, when the Kings can sneak into the playoffs and then grab the Cup, that any team among the fortunate 16 has a chance to win.

"In a seven-game series, even a team like ours that hasn't been there much can beat any other team, and we know that," says center Tyler Bozak. "Sometimes it's about who gets hot and who you match up against."

That idea worked for Toronto's last Cup winner. As a footnote, the 1966-67 Leafs finished only five games above .500 and actually allowed seven more goals than they scored during the regular season. They endured a 10-game losing streak (and 11-game winless streak) in January and February of what seemed to be a dreary season. But they knocked off arch-rival Montreal that year and could well face the Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs this spring in a return to glory for venerable franchises seeing rebirths in what some people suspected would be down years.

"As long as we get there," says Bozak, who is now in his fourth year with the club, "it will be worth the wait."

HACKEL:Keys to the Canadiens' surprising success

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