Maple Leafs fall back

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:44 PM ET

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The hard fact of life for NHLers is being called upon to play back-to-back, to get on a plane and duplicate a great effort, sometimes less than 24 hours later.

It would be easy to blame the Maple Leafs’ hot-and- cold, night-and-day weekend split on being the league’s second youngest team. But the concept of playing consecutive games shouldn’t be a foreign one to those in the group who have slogged it out on the buses in the minors or in juniors.

Nor should those dwindling number of Leafs in the veterans category get off the hook. When taking the ice against the Islanders here on Sunday night, they had a chance to be part of just the ninth sweep of back-to-back games in the 71 times it has played in a 48-hour span since the end of the lockout.

But there was no repeat of Saturday’s 6-4 win over Edmonton, with the power play capped, defensive coverage down low too soft and many other aspects of their game seemingly lost in the hour eaten by daylight savings time. Toronto managed to spring forward and fall back in the same weekend.

From determining who is not the worst team in hockey with Saturday’s good all-around effort at home, Toronto came here with a chance to close the gap on 28th place to three points. In draft lingo, that’s the difference between second and third overall pick, with the Leafs anxious to work their way down the order in their final 13 games to deny Boston a premier pick. But the Isles were the better team in almost all facets on Sunday.

“We showed tonight a lack of maturity,” said goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere after the 4-1 loss. “The lesson is we can’t let up or take anything easy. We’re last in the conference, we need to respect everyone we’re playing against. Just showing up is not an option in this league.”

Coach Ron Wilson saw trouble lurking after the Leafs started to coast on a 5-1 lead against the Oilers. From that point, they have been out-scored 7-2.

From three power-play goals on eight chances Saturday — a couple of lengthy 5-on-3s sure helped them end a seven-game slump with the extra man — the Leafs were once more tentative on Sunday, wasting eight more opportunities.

“We’re just not setting up and letting the puck do some work for us,” Wilson said. “We’re holding on to pucks and not moving them quickly. And when we do get a shot towards the net, we’re not winning any puck battles.”

Just to rub it in, New York’s winning goal came short-handed from Richard Park’s stick. Tomas Kaberle was a minus-2 on Sunday, while Dion Phaneuf’s big shot continues to be neutralized.

“When you have a team with our kind of personnel, with our speed, you have to take advantage of it,” opined Giguere. “We’re going to draw a lot of penalties as a fast team.”

Aside from Christian Hanson skating into a large furled U.S. flag in warmups, the Leafs showed no early jet lag from a weather-delayed flight and the hour time change. Nikolai Kulemin was sent in alone by Mikhail Grabovski in the first minute and made no mistake on Martin Biron.

“We talked before the game about not having enough talent to win games, that we have to work for it,” defenceman Francois Beauchemin said. “Being young, we should have energy every night. We’re frustrated tonight, because we’re young and fresh and we shouldn’t have to wait for the other team to get tired.”

But New York, in many ways a mirror image of the Leafs, was able to respond with its first two-goal opening period in 20 games, from around the time in late January the Isles went into freefall. New York checkers beat at least three different Leafs to the puck in relaying to Tim Jackman for their first goal.

The Leafs then took a series of lazy penalties, five in all through two periods, and lived to tell, only to let up on coverage again when the defence was beaten in battles down low and Frans Nielsen put New York up by two. The Isles weren’t having much power-play fun, either, until Matt Moulson’s late goal.

“If you want to be a good team and a playoff team in this league, you have to win back-to-back nights,” Phaneuf declared. “The schedule is more condensed this year and you have to play back-to- back and they played harder than we did. That’s the bottom line.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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