February 29, 2012
Leafs' slide continues with loss in Chicago
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
CHICAGO - They've tried just about everything now.
Playing desperation hockey.
Playing the blame-the-trade-deadline game.
Hanging the goaltenders out to dry, both on the ice and off of it.
In a season that is running out of time and scapegoats, the Maple Leafs lost yet another game on Wednesday night at the rocking United Center, climbing deeper into a hole that seems to have no bottom.
A better effort, albeit against a ratty-looking Blackhawks squad, resulted in a 5-4 loss, the Leafs' sixth defeat in a row and 10th in their past 11 games.
Just how a team that started February with so much promise, looking to climb higher in the playoff seedings, could end it the way they did, is as inexplicable both to those watching it and those who are living it.
"We were so comfortable pretty much right after all-star break," Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said. "We talked about what we needed to do to get in the playoffs. This is a bit much right now. I don't know what to say."
No one does, really.
Not coach Ron Wilson, who has had to deal with humiliation of fans calling for his job via noisy chants in his own building.
Not general manager Brian Burke, who may have tried to ease the tension around his team by blaming the pressures of the trade deadline, a line that may fly some places but not in Toronto.
Even on a night when the Leafs played well enough to win, they found a new way to lose and scuttle an effort that might have allowed them to at least take a breath.
They even scored in the first minute and opened up a 3-1 lead at one point in the first.
They even had some decent goaltending from Jonas Gustavsson, but a couple of defensive breakdowns and two more notable lost puck battles were just enough to do them in.
Once Chicago coach Joel Quenneville had seen enough of starter Corey Crawford's shoddy play -- yielding three goals in 10 first-period shots -- and replacing him with Ray Emery, the Leafs were doomed.
That 3-1 lead -- on goals by Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur -- was all gone by 12:06 of the second when Marian Hossa gave the Hawks the lead for good.
Mike Brown scored the Leafs fourth goal with four seconds remaining in the game but it came 12 seconds after Hossa buried one into the empty Toronto net.
Despite the calls for his hide, Wilson is doing his best to keep a brave face as his team's hold on 10th place in the Eastern Conference gets more tenuous by the day.
"I don't look at it as pressure, like what you think," Wilson said afterwards. "Pressure is when you are fighting for your life and you've got cancer. This, you're trying to win hockey games."
When pressed on the undeniable din of those calling for his head, Wilson responded by saying, "I don't listen."
Where it will end and how much damage is anyone's guess at this point, but the toxic cloud trailing this team is getting uglier by the night.
With the latest defeat, against a Blackhawks team that clearly has its own issues, the Leafs have 65 points in 64 games. Some perspective: It's the same total they had at this point in the season a year ago, an effort that made sure their run of playoff-less seasons since 2004 continued.
Leafs players are attempting vainly to keep it in perspective but obviously didn't mind getting out of town for a few nights.
Rather than return home following Wednesday's game -- as they most often do -- the team stayed in Chicago and was planning to travel to Montreal in the morning where they will remain through the weekend.
For most of the young players on the roster, they've never faced such venom from the fan base.
"You get frustrated, but at the same time sometimes I think if I was working a 9-to-5 job and I paid that much money to come to the game, I'd be upset too," forward Clarke MacArthur said. "(The fans) have all the right to do that. They pay for their seats and it's our job to come out and have a better performance."
As they have shown throughout the slump, this is a shaken team unable to find an answer no matter what the game situation.
The excuses are long gone and so are the explanations. All that remains is finding out where it all ends.