Leafs go on holiday early

LANCE HORNBY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 10:47 AM ET

UNIONDALE, N.Y. - In the spirit of the season, Brian Burke had put a halt to Yuletide player moves 10 days before the rest of the NHL.

And how did the Leafs show gratitude to their general manager?

By going on holiday about 24 hours too early as part of a general pre-Christmas sleigh bump that’s dropped them to 14th place.

Looking to beat one of the few clubs beneath it in the standings, Toronto dozed through much of the first two periods and despite a better third, was out-worked by the New York Islanders on the night, 3-1.

The Leafs head into a two-day Christmas break with just one win in their past five games (1-3-1) and while their five-point gap on a playoff spot didn’t change, the Isles and Flyers both moved up to make it six teams they need to pass.

“We should know what our identity is and we didn’t play to it (Friday),” said coach Ron Wilson, the first of many in the room to bemoan the bad timing of a soft game against a fragile New York club.

“The urgency has to be right there from the first minute, not when we get down one or two goals,” said alternate captain Tomas Kaberle. “It’s in (this room), we have to talk about it. It’s almost halfway through the season now.

“When we’re successful, we forecheck hard, five guys going up and back. There was a big point for us and we came short in the end.”

Niklas Hagman jammed in a rebound, his team-leading 16th goal, as the Leafs opened the third with sustained pressure and badly needed traffic in front of Dwayne Roloson.

But their power play was ineffective going for the tie with Brendan Witt off, capping an 0-for-2 night and a 1-for-14 slide the past five games.

Less than four minutes remained in the second period when the Leafs finally reached double figures in shots on Roloson, whom they’d tested 61 times in a 4-3 overtime loss in November. Fourteen of Toronto’s 27 shots Friday night came in the third.

“We’ve played some good hockey, but we can’t be satisfied with that (game),” said centre Matt Stajan, who took a tripping call behind the play at the start of the first period. “There were times we didn’t want the puck and before we knew it we were down by two.”

Trent Hunter scored just at the end of a Jeff Finger slashing call in the second period, cutting off a Mike Komisarek clearing attempt and finding a hole in Jonas Gustavsson, whose first-period poke check on Jon Sim out of the box on a breakaway should have inspired the Leafs.

“I don’t know where (Hunter) shot it from, if I was screened or whatever, but I think it hit my shoulder and the post, so it must have been pretty good,” Gustavsson said.

The rattled Leafs then let Blake Comeau slice through their ranks and centre to an open John Tavares. The latter’s 16th goal and 28th point extended the Oakville native’s lead among NHL rookie scorers.

Comeau was credited with an empty net goal when Francois Beauchemin hauled him down in the last minute, while winger Phil Kessel’s points’ slump reached a critical four games.

At least the Leafs now get their first two-day break since the end of November, not required to be back on skates until the morning of their Boxing Day game against the Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre.

Then it’s three on the road, starting Sunday in Pittsburgh and a trip over New Years to play the two Alberta teams. Komisarek spoke of using last night’s game as a springboard to a strong second half that officially starts Jan. 2 in Calgary, but it didn’t happen.

“The schedule has been hectic for all teams so you don’t want to make excuses, but we’ve played a lot of hockey,” Stajan said. “You have to use these next two days wisely and get your rest, not just physically, but mentally. We’ll be sure to get back willing to get climbing in the standings.”

Gustavsson was making his first start in the old Nassau Coliseum, which was half empty with an announced crowd of 10,865 and not in a festive mood with the Isles momentum in October and November giving way to four straight home defeats.

New York had been out-scored 46-23 in the final 20 minutes this year, so the potential for Toronto’s first third-period comeback this season was definitely there.


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