Leafs fail to end 2010 on a winning note

Maple Leafs Phil Kessel and Blue Jackets Anton Stralman during their game on December 30, 2010....

Maple Leafs Phil Kessel and Blue Jackets Anton Stralman during their game on December 30, 2010. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:57 AM ET

For the Maple Leafs, the less said about 2010, the better.

The calendar year came to a merciful end Thursday at the Air Canada Centre, the first half spent far out of the playoff race, the past two months digging a hole that will make it awfully hard to qualify in 2011.

Most of the weaker teams in the NHL seem to be beating the Leafs these days, so the surf was up for the Columbus Blue Jackets, whose 3-2 win was their first in regulation against Toronto in team history (1-5-1-2). It was the second one-goal regulation defeat Toronto has absorbed this week.

“I thought we laid off the gas a few times tonight — and there’s no reason for it,” said bewildered winger Clarke MacArthur.

Toronto, minus its hottest scorer Mikhail Grabovski, was fortunate to stay in the contest, given the sloppy play of the defence in front of Jonas Gustavsson. The Leafs held a one-goal lead after the first period, having not lost a game under those conditions this year (6-0-3).

But the Leafs’ 2010 record comes in at 27-37-12, a forgettable 365 days, except for the buzz following the big January trade with Calgary and October’s 4-0 start.

“It was definitely an exciting year coming in here,” new captain Dion Phaneuf said. “(But) it’s not where we want to be as a team.”

Phaneuf and the blue line crew led the way to 25 shot blocks to Columbus’ 10, but coach Ron Wilson could only grimace at their soft passes and puck fumbles that were disrupting the Leafs breakout. Komisarek’s giveaway led to a shot off the post and Francois Beauchemin topped it with a bad bounce off the boards and a kick of the puck in front right to Kristian Huselius for his second of the game.

“Tonight our D had a tough night handling pucks, mis-reading rushes and had some pretty bad giveways,” said Wilson, who also understated the whole defence had been below par this season. “It slowed our offence down. As the game went on we had trouble coming back. We had partners not supporting one another. Our forwards weren’t getting the puck when they should and we took the speed right out of our game.”

Gustavsson made 29 saves, but had no answer for two freebie early goals by Huselius and then R.J. Umberger’s power-play screen goal on a big Rick Nash shot in the third. The Leafs mustered just three second-period shots and remain in a double-figure deficit for eighth place in the East with a New Year’s Day game in Ottawa next on the menu. They did press at the end with Gustavsson on the bench, but couldn’t get a clear shot.

The Leafs had a mish-mash lineup created by the absence of Grabovski and his six-game points’ streak. He spent almost the whole day attending to his girlfriend Kate, who was in labour with their first child, a daughter born at 8:30 p.m.

Darryl Boyce, who had a three-minute shift almost three years ago before a season-ending shoulder injury in the same Leafs game, skated in Grabovski’s centre spot on the top line and contributed an assist on Nikolai Kulemin’s 13th of the year. That 2-on-1 with MacArthur began with two shot blocks and a breakout pass by Komisarek.

But the Leafs gave it back right away, a soft Phil Kessel pass turning into a Huselius breakaway.

After Rostislav Klesla shoved Joey Crabb into the boards with too much gusto, the Leafs went on their second power play of the period and scored a rare last minute of the period goal. Kessel cut off a clearing try behind the net and Tyler Bozak surprised goalie Steve Mason by flicking it upstairs from a tight angle. It was Bozak’s first since Dec. 8.

Tim Brent came back into the lineup after getting scratched with the flu on Tuesday, his absence and that of Grabovski lowering the number of Leafs who’ve not missed a game to nine. Brent rejoined the fourth line with Colton Orr and Fredrik Sjostrom, while Crabb’s physical play continued to be a good influence on Kessel and Bozak.

“In every game he’s played, all four of them, he’s done really well,” Wilson said of Crabb. “He plays the game the way we’ve seen him in the past, he’s good along the boards, not afraid of contact and finishes his checks. And he’s good in his own end, taking a hit to make a play. He has a lot of nice things going for him.”

Crabb is getting a shot at a full-time gig with Nazem Kadri back with the Marlies following a 17-game scoreless trial. But Crabb was also in the box on Umberger’s winner for putting the clamp on Nash.

Columbus is last in its division like Toronto, but the similarities end there. The Jackets are just a couple of wins out of the playoffs and have a pretty decent offensive team when using size to press easily rattled teams such as the Leafs.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/sunhornby


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