Leafs, Isles go into Game 6 without captains
The Toronto Maple Leafs try to become the sixth team to advance to the second round tonight when they take on the New York Islanders in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at Nassau Coliseum (CBC, 8 p.m. EDT).
With the series tied at two games apiece after New York won Games 3 and 4 in its own building, the Leafs went home and posted a 6-3 victory in the fifth game on Friday. The match was the club's second without captain Mats Sundin, who is expected to miss the remainder of the playoffs with a broken wrist.
The victory, however, was marred by two separate incidents that knocked Islander players -- captain Michael Peca and defenceman Kenny Jonsson -- out of the postseason with a torn ACL and concussion, respectively. Jonsson was slammed into the glass by Toronto's Gary Roberts, while Peca was taken out by a low hip check from the Leafs' Darcy Tucker.
Despite the loss of two of their top skaters, don't expect the Islanders, in the playoffs for the first time since 1994, to fold up camp and prepare for the off-season just yet.
"We're not doing any retrospectives here," general manager Mike Milbury said. "We're playing Game 6 [tonight]. This is a game we can win. This is a game we need to focus on, have our game face ready and go out and win the damn game."
Toronto coach Pat Quinn was expecting a real fight from the Islanders, who will likely be energized by a home crowd -- one which might well give the likes of Tucker a rough welcome.
"All teams look to shore up given whatever the situation is," said Quinn. "You still have expectations going in that, if you play together as a team, you have a chance to win, and I'm sure that's the approach they'll take.
"It's what we've been doing," Quinn adding, alluding to his own lineup, which is also missing first-line winger Mikael Renberg, and defencemen Dmitry Yushkevich and Cory Cross. "It's what any team has to do. That's reality."
The primary benefactor of the Leafs' manpower shortage -- in both Games 4 and 5, they were forced to go with only 17 skaters -- has been Alyn McCAuley. Normally relegated to a checking role, the centre has seen his ice time increased markedly and he's responded with some of the best two-way play of his career.
"I love to compete out there and to get a chance to play every second or third shift is great," said McCauley, who has been moved up to the Sundin's spot between Jonas Hoglund and Roberts on some shifts. "You can make up for some mistakes and usually by the end you're making the other team make some."
Two players Toronto won't have to do without are Roberts and Tucker. Neither was punished by the National Hockey League for his actions, although Milbury was still fuming about both plays on Saturday.
"Is it common to ram a guy's head, face-first, into the glass from a running start from the blue-line?" Milbury asked. "Is it common to duck down on a late hit after a simple clearing play to aim at a guy's knees after you've talked about it?
"That's not playoff hockey. That's not hockey at all. That's thuggery."
Tucker, meanwhile, wondered aloud why his check was even reviewed by the league.
"A hip check? They review that?" asked Tucker, whose hit was technically legal, but did appear to aim low. "I was just finishing my check. I don't know what the big hoopla is about. If [Peca] hadn't been hurt, there wouldn't have been anything said about it."
As for Game 5 itself, Bryan McCabe scored two second-period goals for the Maple Leafs to bust open what was a one-goal game at the first intermission. McCabe is the same player whose trip on Shawn Bates in Game 4 led to the game-winning penalty shot. He was also ripped by Milbury earlier in the series for using questionable defensive tactics.
"A lot of us stepped up. We've done a pretty good job of overcoming injuries," McCabe said. "They've lost a bunch of players, too. It's even Steven now."
In the absence of his usual linemates, Sundin and Renberg, Hoglund added two goals and an assist for Toronto, which also received tallies from Garry Valk and Tucker. Goaltender Curtis Joseph, meanwhile, turned aside 16 shots for his 51st career postseason victory.
Now the Leafs find themselves in the same spot they were in almost a year ago against New Jersey. Quinn's troops carried a three games to two lead into Game 6 of the second-round set with the Devils, only to drop consecutive contests and the series.
"We have a chance to close it," Quinn said. "We were in that spot a year ago against New Jersey and we weren't able to pull it off. We have to make a step here."
Should the Leafs "pull it off" this time around, they'd have to wait for their second-round opponent. Should Montreal defeat Boston (Canadiens lead 3-2), Toronto would face Ottawa for the third straight post-season, but if the Bruins come back to win the series, the Leafs would take on third-seeded Carolina.
The Islanders received goals from Kip Miller, Trent Hunter and Adrian Aucoin on Friday. Goaltender Chris Osgood allowed four scores on 15 shots before yielding to backup Garth Snow in the second after McCabe's second goal. Snow stopped 17 of 19 shots.
New York hopes the team can return to the friendly confines of Nassau Coliseum, which was extremely boisterous for Games 3 and 4, and regain the momentum edge. The Isles outscored the Leafs 10-4 in the two tilts played on their ice.
They improved their all-time home playoff record to 76-32 for a winning percentage of .704. That clip moved New York ahead of Montreal in the NHL record books.
The Isles are 24-13 when facing elimination -- including 14-4 on home ice -- so there are plenty of factors to suggest that the Leafs won't have an easy time of it on Sunday.
"They play an Ozzy Osbourne song to get the fans riled up and waiting for us when we come out," said McCauley. "If we can get a quick goal and silence them a little bit and keep the puck out of our net, it'll help."
However, Milbury stressed that the Islanders have to play smart and not let their emotions get the better of them.
It's a useless exercise," Milbury said of retaliation. "Really, if we wanted to get revenge we should have taken out the tomahawk (Friday) night when it was 6-3. We didn't do that, and I'm glad we didn't do that.
"If we waste energy and focus trying to 'get even' we wind up in the penalty box or out of position, and you do the exact opposite of what you want -- play without discipline."
Game 7, if necessary, would be played Tuesday back at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
With files from The Sports Network