Sharing the blame

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

Back when the Maple Leafs were staggering toward the Olympic break with 12 losses in 15 games, their fans tried to effect an air of optimism.

There wasn't really any cause for concern, they said. The injuries to the defencemen, especially Bryan McCabe, had started a downhill slide that, once rolling, had been difficult to arrest.

The Olympic break was supposed to be just what the Leafs needed.

Compared to most teams, they didn't have much of a representation in Italy, and when the season resumed, they would be rested and raring to go. They would produce some of the high-quality hockey that got them off to a good start.

So how did the theory work?

Well, let's just say that it's not about to supplant the works of Newton and Einstein in the textbooks.

The Leafs not only lost the opener of their "playoff drive," they lost 5-3 at home to the Washington Capitals, the worst road team in the entire National Hockey League.

THE NIGHT OFF

It also must be noted that the player who has been the Caps' defensive backbone, goaltender Olaf Kolzig, was given the night off. As a result, the Leafs were facing Brent Johnson with his .876 save percentage and his 4.16 goals-against average.

Still, Johnson looked considerably better than his counterpart in the Leafs net. Ed Belfour was no sharper last night than he was prior to the break and that can't be good news for Toronto fans.

If this team is to have any success at all, it has to be founded on excellent goaltending. And Belfour was far from that.

But Belfour certainly is not the only one who deserves the blame. A number of Toronto players were under the microscope last night -- and few of them acquitted themselves well.

Darcy Tucker, who is the team's leading scorer and is rapidly emerging as the most dynamic player on the team, scored the goal that erased the Capitals' first lead.

Chad Kilger was noticeable as well. He played a spirited game and blasted a wicked shot past Johnson in the third period to give the Leafs some slight hope.

After that, there wasn't much.

Eric Lindros, in his first game back after missing 27, hardly was noticeable, but that's not surprising. Any NHL player needs time to get back into form after an absence of that duration, so it's not fair to tar him with the same brush.

But what were the excuses for the rest of them?

McCabe had an erratic game. On one occasion, he sparkled by diving to prevent a clean breakaway by Jeff Halpern.

But shortly afterward, on a Toronto power play, he took an ill-advised shot into Matt Pettinger's pads, then dove to stop Pettinger and missed completely.

As a result, Pettinger went in alone on Belfour and scored.

Then when the period ended, McCabe earned himself a 10-minute misconduct for yapping at the referees. Not doubt he felt that with only eight of the 11 power plays that had been awarded, the Leafs were being short-changed.

McCabe has to realize that he's too important to the Leafs to be missing for 10-minute stretches, especially when the team is trailing and needs his power-play contributions.

USUAL CONTRIBUTIONS

Tie Domi made his usual contributions -- a stupid penalty and a dive. The Caps scored while he was in the box, but the Leafs didn't score on the penalty he created, so that's not a very good deal.

And the entire Toronto power play took a failing grade as well.

Even though the Caps staged a parade to the penalty box, the Leafs mostly were impotent, with Tucker's goal being the only exception.

And Mats Sundin? Don't ask. He showed the effects of his Olympic gold-medal celebrations.

But who can blame him? He's not likely to get the opportunity to do any celebrating with the Leafs.


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