No reason for Leafs fans to panic

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

Remember all those awful things people were saying about the Maple Leafs during the off-season?

How they had wasted big money on a 40-year-old goalie? How they would be unmasked because they couldn't spend their way to a playoff spot? How their free agent acquisitions were a tad brittle? How their defensive liabilities wouldn't cut it in the New NHL? How their GM really didn't have a solid plan to deal with the new economic reality?

Well, in the wake of another pasting at the hands of the Ottawa Senators Saturday night, and on the verge of falling out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference, you can expect any or all of those old complaints to make a big comeback.

OVERACHIEVED

Truth is, early on in the season the Leafs answered all their critics, performing better than most expected. Ah, but this is not one of your more patient puck bergs on the planet. Recent history seems to have spawned a nasty wave of amnesia.

All it took was another whuppin' at the hands of the Leafs' most reviled rival -- you do recall the 8-0 fiasco a month ago? -- to ensure that the sky is falling all over Leafs Nation.

The Senators haven't been perfect this season but, when they're playing teams within their own division, they've been awfully close to it. They have now won 13 out of 14 intra-division games. They've wiped out the Leafs four times, Montreal three times, Buffalo three times and Boston three out of four.

The lone Ottawa defeat within the division came at the hands of the Bruins on the first game after the Joe Thornton trade. And if you think the Leafs have had a tough time (outscored 25-9 in the four losses), consider what the Sens have done to Buffalo. The Sabres have yet to come within five goals, beaten 5-0, 6-1 and 10-4.

The Leafs toboggan ride could continue tonight with the Islanders in town. They just happen to be the team right on Toronto's tail in the conference standings and a New York win at the Air Canada Centre will vault them past Toronto into the eighth and final playoff position.

There being some 50 games between now and said playoffs, the position is more symbolic than anything, but it is true that points earned in December are just as important as points earned in March. Just as this latest Leafs skid may very well point to some lean times on the way to Toronto's ultimate fate.

Eddie Belfour played poorly in Ottawa and has been less than consistent all season, perhaps opening the door for Mikael Tellqvist to be in net tonight. That said, Quinn still backs Belfour as his ace.

"We need to have a lot of our players come up with better performances," said Quinn. "I don't want to be a blamer. (Belfour) is not that responsible. I know he'd like to have two or three of them back but mostly we just did a lousy job in front of him."

They especially did a lousy job killing penalties. Ultimately Toronto's fate, like the fate of many of its opponents, rests upon how well it handles the continuing parade to the penalty box. Against the Senators and their high-octane power play, the Leafs were a disaster, giving up six power play goals.

"The way we see things in here, we just have to be better," centre Jason Allison said. "More consistent. It's not that teams are beating us. We're beating ourselves.

"Two out of three games, we take way too many penalties. You give a team like that that many power plays, they're gonna beat you."

Quinn is loathe even to discuss the subject of penalties and who could possibly blame him? He's already been fined for critical remarks.

The injury bug has bitten the team in a large way this past week. Tie Domi (shoulder), Eric Lindros (wrist) and Nik Antropov (knee) won't play tonight. And now Alex Steen, one of Quinn's best two-way forwards, has injured his thumb, in practice yesterday, causing more lineup chaos.

More lineup chaos equals more angst. More angst is just a state of being for the Leafs and their fans.


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