Deja boo for Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darcy Tucker displays his usual grit against defenceman Dimitri Kalinin...

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darcy Tucker displays his usual grit against defenceman Dimitri Kalinin of the Buffalo Sabres last night in a losing cause. (Toronto Sun/Alex Urosevic)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

Special teams just made a giant leap to the top of Paul Maurice's already crowded training camp agenda.

Despite a frantic two-week exhibition schedule that began last night, the new Maple Leafs coach realizes he'll have to devote quality time with a penalty killing unit that ranked 24th in the National Hockey League last year and was burned repeatedly last night in a 4-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. The man disadvantage meltdown was just one issue for Maurice to ponder on a night where 18,851 fans ended up booing his team's effort.

"You're willing to forgive certain things in an exhibition game, especially with the (small) amount of preparation we've had, but I was surprised with some of the softness on the puck," Maurice said. "But that's what these games are for."

The Leafs dressed what might have been their biggest defence in team history, auditioning three of the tallest blue liners from Maurice's Marlies pool; Andy Wozniewski, Staffan Kronwall and Jay Harrison. Together with new veterans Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina and incumbent Bryan McCabe, the crew averaged more than 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds.

LACKED SKILL

But while capable of hitting hard, they lacked the skill element of a Tomas Kaberle or even Ian White, Brendan Bell or Carlo Colaiacovo.

"There are habits that are hard to break," Maurice said. "We don't move the puck fast enough from the back end, but we don't get ourselves in position quickly enough as forwards."

When they rang up six consecutive minors in the middle period, Jiri Novotny, Derek Roy and Daniel Paille capitalized for Buffalo and Michael Ryan added another in the third. One goal was a 5-on-3, two came with Gill beat on key coverage and another when McCabe missed a hip check.

The only man not complaining about the 11 Sabres power plays was the guy fishing the puck out of the Toronto net, new No. 1 goaltender Andrew Raycroft.

"It was nice to have the penalties, to be honest," he said. "I'd rather have more work than less at this time of year.

"Let's keep it in perspective. If we lost nine exhibition games and won our first nine regular season, then no one would remember what happened first.

"We have 40 guys trying out here. I'm sure the coach saw some things he wants to address."

Raycroft shut the door until 8:05 of the second period, making some fine glove saves along the way and stopping a Ryan breakaway. But last night was also a microcosm of last season's non-playoff result. In addition to the penalty-killing woes, the Leafs couldn't click on their 5-on-5 passing, ringing up just 23 shots, and were beaten by a Northeast Division opponent.

A toughened up Nik Antropov passed a test by keeping pace with speedsters Kyle Wellwood and Alex Steen on early shifts, but they too, were stymied by Buffalo and goaltender Martin Biron.


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