Leafs look lost in opener

LANCE HORNBY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 11:41 AM ET


  THE MAPLE LEAFS were lost on home ice last night, unable to find the Ottawa Senators net before the visitors locked them in a closet for the evening.

The Leafs could not or would not get close enough to vulnerable Sens goaltender Patrick Lalime -- a feeble 17-shot attack costing them both Game 1 and home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference quarter-final.

The Senators, bearing little resemblance to the nervous nellies who usually show up against Toronto in playoffs, bagged a 4-2 victory at the Air Canada Centre and looked more poised than the playoff-proven Leafs.

"It's one game ... it can be fixed," said Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe, who scored and was later a victim of an unusual slashing call that helped alter the game. "We have to stay out of the penalty box and we'll be fine."

Lalime, coming off a knee injury last month, was ripe for the picking and gave up two goals on the first four shots, by Joe Nieuwendyk and McCabe. But then the Leafs fell into their old bad habits, including a lack of composure unbecoming of their experienced ranks.

"We had the penalty problems that changed the game, not that we were (playing well) early on," coach Pat Quinn said. "We know their checking style, but we played right into their hands. It's hard to win playing solo."

Up 2-1 midway through the game, the Leafs were suddenly hit with a Mikael Renberg obstruction penalty ("a phantom call," Quinn said) and nine seconds later by a McCabe slash, which seemed harmless but snapped Marian Hossa's stick. In 38 seconds Wade Redden and Hossa had put the Sens ahead, Redden's goal a five-on-three. Hossa then iced it in the third period with a beauty on a breakaway, leaping over a gambling dive by Ed Belfour and somehow managing to steer the puck into the net.

A Calle Johansson giveaway led to the second Hossa goal, one of many by a Leafs defence that was out of sync with the forwards.

Belfour had carried a shutout string of 174 minutes 28 seconds into the game, including a 6-0 win over Ottawa in the season finale. That win gave the Leafs a 4-1-1 advantage against the Sens for 2003-04. But the old adage about 82 games meaning squat come playoff time certainly applied last night.

Belfour wasn't the reason the Leafs lost, but the fact that his invincibility has been exposed will do a lot for the Sens.

Angry over the officiating of referees Dan Marouelli and Marc Joannette, Belfour stalked the former and was given a minor penalty late in the game.

Lost in all the gushing about the Leafs' upper hand in goaltending in the series was Lalime's excellent 1.73 playoff goals-against average coming in. He took the Sens to the brink of the Stanley Cup final last year and did enough good things last night to let Ottawa's NHL-leading offence, power play and counter-checking game to be deciding factors.

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TURNING POINT

The key play in Game 1:

- Nursing a 2-1 lead midway through the second period, the Leafs already were one man short when a Bryan McCabe hack broke the stick of the Senators' Marian Hossa. McCabe was sent to the penalty box and, 55 seconds later, Ottawa had scored twice to take the lead.


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