Fading Leafs come up short

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

Hard to tell what has confused the Maple Leafs most this morning, the letdown in their eighth consecutive loss or the jumbled Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Neither is pretty, as the Montreal Canadiens extended Toronto's January nightmare last night with two quick third-period goals and a 4-3 overtime win on a power-play goal.

A game that teased Leafs fans with so many positives, such as Mikael Tellqvist's work in net, Darcy Tucker's return with a goal and poised play from three rookie defencemen, was upstaged by Saku Koivu's dagger at 1:04 of overtime.

"It looked like we were in good shape, but I guess we got some mixed messages," Leafs coach Pat Quinn said. "We were over-cautious (trying to nurse a one-goal lead early in the third)."

Toronto requires about 20 wins in its remaining 32 games to get the magic number of 90-plus points that traditionally guarantee a playoff spot. The National Hockey League's generous points system awarded the Leafs a single last night, while the very beatable Habs, a road disaster most of this season, somehow have turned their meager 47 shots in three games into two wins.

Coupled with last night's result and the Atlanta Thrashers' loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Leafs, Habs and Thrashers all are tied for the eighth and last playoff spot.

Forward Kyle Wellwood cared only that the Leafs were on the wrong end of the scoreboard.

"We definitely count this as a loss," Wellwood said. "We wanted a win before heading out on a three-game road trip (this week against the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals)."

Quinn made a difficult call, sitting goalie Ed Belfour at home for the up-and-coming Tellqvist. The move was paying off until Koivu banked his second of the game off Alex Steen's skate, the latest in a series of deadly deflections on the Leafs. Tellqvist then gave the puck away behind his net to Tomas Plekanec on a Jan Bulis goal 35 seconds later.

"I got it up pretty good, I think, and (Plekanec) just gets it down and throws it in front," said Tellqvist, the last Leafs goalie to win a game, back on Jan. 7 in Edmonton. "It kind of caught me off guard. But that's the way it is when you lose."

Ken Klee tied it at 15:42 to force overtime, but Leafs defenceman Alex Khavanov, who had scored earlier, hauled down Alexei Kovalev on the first shift. Montreal, with little grit in their lineup, won it when Koivu jammed both puck and Tellqvist over the line.

"We did a lot of good tonight, we'll take the point," Leafs captain Mat Sundin said. "Every time we made a mistake, it was in our net. But I think we can build from a game like this."

Tucker, who missed six of the previous seven losses with a rib injury, banged his knee on the same shift that Klee scored. He went to the room, but came back for the last shifts.

Tucker's team-high goal total was not surrendered in his absence, adding his 19th on a five-on-three power-play. Sundin collected his eighth point in seven games on the play.

REPORT CARD

C+ Forwards: Darcy Tucker's return helped rejuvenate the scoring, but the Leafs still missed too many chances.

C- Defence: Eventually, the high number of kids in the lineup last night proved to be a detriment for the Leafs.

C+ Goaltending: Until late in the third period, Tellqvist suffered none of the bad luck that plagued Ed Belfour.


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