TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs hit the ice Saturday night for the latest instalment of their improbable playoff push and they may be doing so without their most valuable player.
Captain Mats Sundin is a question mark for the big game against the Buffalo Sabres thanks to a groin strain he picked up Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
"We'll see how it feels tomorrow morning and go from there," Sundin said Friday at the team's suburban practice facility.
The 37-year-old star centre gingerly skated by himself for 20 minutes prior to his team's practice.
"We didn't want him to go out there and skate himself into the ground," said Leafs head coach Paul Maurice. "We're hoping tomorrow he'll go out feel good and strong, push himself a little bit and then make a decision."
Privately Maurice must be feeling like the sky is falling. His team is playing its best hockey of the season and staying in a race few believed they had any chance of still being involved in - the latest surprise a two-game sweep of the Flyers on Tuesday and Wednesday. But it came a huge price, Maurice losing his best player at the worst possible time.
"Obviously this is devastating," Sundin said when asked about the injury's timing. "(But) we have a good enough team to win if I'm not in the lineup."
Sundin said he doesn't feel the injury when he's in street clothes.
"It's the skating motion you feel," he said. "It feels better than it did right after I left the game."
Day to day is a cliche when it comes to groin injuries in hockey but that's really the case here with Sundin.
"You always know with injuries, especially with the type of injury Mats has, you don't know if he'll be back either tomorrow or Tuesday or when he'll be back," said teammate Alex Steen.
Should Sundin need to sit out the next two games, including Tuesday on Long Island, Toronto's next game after that is Friday at Buffalo. That would give Sundin nine days off, perhaps not a bad idea. But on the other hand, every point is crucial right now for the Leafs and they need their best player.
"The real decision will be tomorrow when he gets on the ice and he gets moving to see how he feels," said Maurice. "If he doesn't feel strong enough, then he's not going to play.
"It has to be a one-game issue, not an in-and-out for three or four."
The Leafs sit five points behind Philadelphia for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres, their blue-line decimated by injuries, were four points back of the Flyers entering Friday night's home game with Carolina.
Needless to say, Saturday's Sabres-Tor tilt is a biggie. Having Sundin out of the lineup is a killer.
"Obviously he's our leader, he's the reason we are winning," said Leafs forward Nik Antropov. "If he can't make it we have to stick together. We did a pretty good job in the last two and a half periods in Philadelphia after he left.
"Everybody did a good job, guys didn't make mistakes, some guys blocked shots, we just helped each other on the ice."
Antropov skated on a line with Steen and Alexei Ponikarovsky at practice Friday with Steen playing centre. Maurice can use either Steen or Antropov in the middle.
"I think Nik Antropov and Alex Steen are two guys that naturally fit in the middle more," said Maurice. "Alex is somebody that I think at some point in the next year or two, regardless, they're going to have to look at him at centre ice.
"So we got a good chance now in important situations. I thought he went in there and did a really good job (in Philadelphia). He has speed down low, he has a good understanding of it, so I was comfortable with that."
Steen says it's no big deal either way.
"I switched back and forth (over the years), been kind of playing the wing for the last three years, the lockout years in Sweden and two years since," said Steen. "I feel pretty confident in all three positions, left right and the middle.
"It felt pretty comfortable in the last game, actually."
Antropov has played both wing and centre since he's been a Leaf.
"I don't have a preference right now," said Antropov.