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Antropov to return, Sundin possibly; but does it really matter?

TORONTO - Nik Antropov will almost surely be back and captain Mats Sundin is a possibility.

The question is, does it really matter?

The math suggests the Toronto Maple Leafs aren't officially done. But judging from the quiet practice and the lack of on-ice banter Wednesday, the players know they're all but cooked.

There was little chirping or laughing on the ice. The fun that had been generated from a surprising 12-4-1 stretch got zapped with Tuesday night's 6-2 thumping at home by the Boston Bruins. The Leafs are six points out with five games left.

The body still has a breath of life but the line of questioning after practice focused on the autopsy. And this one is easy. The Leafs didn't start playing hockey until it was too late.

"That's the critical element to our season," agreed Leafs head coach Paul Maurice. "It took us 40 (games) to become a better defensive hockey team. And we're still not anywhere near where I think we can get to on that. And that's the challenge, you want to be able to score some goals while at the same time be a better defensive team.

"That's the area that's been the biggest frustration for everybody - players included. That it didn't come more quickly."

That's the frustrating part for Sundin, who now sees a team that can compete.

"You look at since the middle of January, we really came a long way as a team," said Sundin. "Obviously last night was disappointing but in saying that I think a lot of guys have stepped up and we're playing better as a group."

It's also the same movie all over again. The post-lockout Leafs waited too late in all three seasons to get hot. A cynic would say they started playing well when the pressure was off.

"What makes you think a little bit is that it's kind of the same scenario we've been in the last couple of years," said Sundin. "I don't know the reason for that..."

For this season, Maurice takes the blame.

"At the end of the day, that's the job of the coach to get the team to improve in the areas that it needs to and we just haven't been able to get them in the first 40 games to play well enough defensively," said Maurice.

That was a typically honest answer from Maurice, who despite the nauseating task of answering the same questions every single day over and over again from the largest hockey media contingent in the country, he was again nothing but class all season long.

Maurice may want to take all the heat, but there's plenty of blame to go around on this team. Bryan McCabe had another inconsistent season - certainly not worthy of the $5.75-million average salary he carries. Kyle Wellwood was a huge disappointment after it was expected he would be a top offensive force. Jason Blake has 15 goals after scoring 40 last season on Long Island. Darcy Tucker would be the first to admit he didn't play up to his standards. Even Tomas Kaberle, the team's best defenceman, got off to a slow start before picking up his game.

It all adds up to a third consecutive season out of the playoffs - a first for the organization since 1928. Hard to believe this amounts to an 80-year low for the franchise given the bad outfits in the 1980s but that's when 16 of 21 teams made the playoffs as opposed to 16 of 30.

Maurice had guaranteed a playoff spot in training camp this season, and doesn't regret doing so.

"I meant it when I said it," said Maurice. "If your coach doesn't believe in your team you might as well just all go home."

Sundin will go home after the season, but will he return?

The 37-year-old is an unrestricted free agent July 1. He seemed surprised when asked Wednesday whether he thought these were his last few games ever as a Maple Leaf if he got back into the lineup soon.

"I haven't thought about that," said Sundin. "Since last summer I looked at my career and I said, you know what, I'm at the stage of my career where I want to play one year at a time to see how I can perform and at what level and also how the body holds up. I'll be in the same position this summer to evaluate my own performance and physically how I feel too."

He hopes to play Thursday in Boston.

"It's been feeling better," he said of his injured groin. "Today was the first day I skated fully (in practice). I felt pretty good. ...

"If it keeps feeling like it did today and I skate the same tomorrow morning, I think there's a chance I can play tomorrow night."

Antropov (knee) is almost sure to play.

"That's the goal right now, to play tomorrow," said Antropov. "I will unless something extraordinary happens overnight."



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