BOSTON -- Mats Sundin's frustration is growing as quickly as the rugged stubble on his face.
Here was a chance to bury the rival Boston Bruins, a struggling team that began the night nine points behind Sundin's Maple Leafs in the Northeast Division standings.
Here was a chance for Toronto to solidify its hold on the eighth and final playoff spot in eastern conference entering tonight's second leg of this home-and-home series against the Beantowners at the Air Canada Centre.
Consider it a blown opportunity.
"This is the NHL and if you don't play up to your abilities you will lose," the captain admitted after his team's disappointing 4-1 defeat at the TD Banknorth Garden last night.
"That is a team desperate for points. But so are we. We're trying to secure a playoff spot, so this is (irritating) to all of us.
"At least we have the opportunity to get it back (tonight)."
They had better. Should the Leafs turn in another subpar effort like they did on Boston's home ice, they face the possibility of waking up Christmas morning just five points ahead of beleaguered coach Mike Sullivan's team.
The recipe for disaster was the same as it has been throughout this recent funk, one in which Pat Quinn's bumbling Buds have dropped six of their past nine outings.
Poor defensive zone coverage. A struggling offence that refuses to shoot the puck. Undisciplined penalties, including an unsportsmanlike conduct minor to Bryan McCabe in the second period for yapping at the officials. And a sluggish power play that went 0-for-9.
Toronto's continuing woes were on display in the second period when defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo was high-sticked in the mouth by former Leaf Travis Green, who received a double minor. Instead of exploiting the extended man advantage, the sloppy Leafs were lucky not to allow a short-handed goal.
"We were so out of sync, we killed off our own power play," Quinn said.
Injuries to Alex Steen's thumb, Eric Lindros' wrist and Nik Antropov's knee will keep all three out of the lineup again tonight. Quinn said Antropov has not yet been cleared to resume skating.
Fortunately, Colaiacovo was able to return after seven stitches were needed to seal the gash in his mouth.
"The inside of my lip is pretty busted up and will be sore the next couple of days but at least I could play," he said.
For the offensively challenged Leafs, who have managed just one goal in three of their past six games, perhaps the only bright light among the skaters was Mariusz Czerkawski. The veteran winger scored for the third time in the past three games after returning to the lineup.
"Their goalie made some good saves down low," said Czerkawski of Boston's Hannu Toivonen, who made 26 saves. "We'll have to shoot higher (tonight)."
While he could not be blamed for the loss, Leafs goalie Mikael Tellqvist was hoping for a better outcome on this, the day he was selected to represent Sweden at the upcoming Olympics.
"I'm excited about that but it would have been nice to win," said Tellqvist, who allowed goals to Green, Alex Zhamnov, Wayne Primeau and Brad Stuart.
Mats Sundin could not have said it any better.