No laughing matter for Leafs

Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals levels Ken Klee of the Maple Leafs with a hefty jolt last...

Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals levels Ken Klee of the Maple Leafs with a hefty jolt last night. (Toronto Sun/Mark O'Neill)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

Darcy Tucker accused some Washington Capitals of "laughing" at the Maple Leafs in the waning moments of the Caps' 5-3 victory last night.

Tucker refused to identify any of the alleged snickering visitors, only remarking that "it just wasn't fun."

If, in fact, the Caps were guffawing on the bench -- a suggestion defenceman Brendan Witt claimed was not true -- they were the only ones in the building wearing a smile.

"He must have been frustrated," Witt said of Tucker. "It was a big game for them."

There certainly was nothing to chuckle about for Maple Leafs chairman of the board Larry Tanenbaum, general manager John Ferguson, coach Pat Quinn or the capacity crowd of 19,449 at the Air Canada Centre, who watched the moribund Leafs fall three points behind the eighth-place Montreal Canadiens in the battle for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

While the Habs were defeating the New York Islanders 5-3 on Long Island, the Leafs dropped their third decision in four outings to the lowly Caps, a team that started the evening in 28th spot in the 30-team NHL.

"Maybe we aren't as good as we think we are because we haven't beaten teams below us," Quinn said.

"In fact, in the past month, we haven't beaten the teams above us, either."

Olympic gold medallist Mats Sundin understandably was suffering from jet lag after arriving from Sweden yesterday morning. The remainder of the Leafs had no such excuse.

In fact, they looked like they were still on an Olympic-break vacation while allowing goals by Brian Willsie just 37 seconds into the game and Alexander Ovechkin 19 seconds into the second period.

"If we keep making mistakes like that, we won't be in the playoffs," Quinn said.

Things don't get any easier in the next week, either.

The Leafs travel to Buffalo Friday to meet the speedy Sabres at the HSBC Arena, a place that has been a house of horrors for Quinn's team over the years.

One night later they play host to the Ottawa Senators, who have beaten the Leafs all six times this season while outscoring Toronto 36-12.

Then comes a date against the resurgent Habs next Tuesday.

Goaltender Ed Belfour looked particularly sluggish after the Olympic layoff, earning him several rounds of Bronx cheers.

Given his shaky play, the sarcastic reception was well deserved.

Should the Leafs fade in the next week, it has been suggested that Ferguson might consider dealing Belfour to a contender in need of a first-string goalie by the trade deadline on March 9.

But it's hard to believe there would be much interested in the 40-year-old veteran, who really has struggled this season.

"You can't do anything about bad bounces," he said.

This team's woes run deeper than "bad bounces."

Matt Pettinger chipped in with a pair of goals, while Ben Clymer also scored for the Caps.

Tucker, Nik Antropov and Chad Kilger replied for the Leafs, who welcomed Eric Lindros back into the lineup after No. 88 missed 80 days with a torn ligament in his wrist.

Lindros did score in the second period when he scooped the puck in with his glove, a goal that was immediately waved off.

"My timing was a bit off," Lindros said. "The more you play, the better it will get."

The Leafs must get better in a big hurry or they won't be playing at all come late April.

And that's nothing to laugh about.


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