Defending a lead a lot harder in new NHL

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:21 AM ET

Back in the days when the NHL was rodeo on ice, you might go months and not see a team blow a three-goal lead.

Thursday night there were two of them, including the Maple Leafs' mini-disaster in New Jersey. More than that, though, seven of the eight games that night were decided in the third period or beyond.

It might make coaches go grey long before their times, but it is a trend that few hockey fans ever will want reversed.

The Maple Leafs were suitably mortified yesterday that they had failed to make a 6-3 lead stand up in New Jersey the night before, losing 7-6 to the Devils in a shootout. For a team that fi gures to be life and death to make the playoffs, one point here or one point there could make the difference.

But neither the Leafs nor their coach, Paul Maurice, were hysterical about it. It was hard to swallow but every player in the room knew how it had happened. E ven two years into the new enforcement, old habits die hard.

"We were by far the better team for 40 minutes and we had a letdown in the third," captain Mats Sundin said.

"If anything we just saw again that in the new NHL you can't sit back like you did previously and defend a lead. You've got to keep trying to be creative. You can't hook and hold in your own end. You can't defend that way anymore. As soon as you lose the initiative and stop being creative you're giving the other team a chance.

"Before, up two goals, you could hook and hold and clutch and grab and shoot the puck out and generally just hold on for 20 minutes or more with a one- or two-goal lead."

In the one Thursday game that wasn't decided in the third period, Los Angeles Kings coach Marc Crawford went off on his players in a long tirade that nearly bubbled the paint on the dressing room walls after they were beaten 4-1 by the Dallas Stars.

Maurice is not above venting his spleen on occasion, but he restricted his criticism of his players on this occasion.

"After a game is just about absolutely the worst time to say anything," Maurice said. "They're not hearing you. They're as mad as you are. They're sour.

"I get to say my piece, usually before the next game and then you move on. Th at is something you learn when coaching a smaller-market team and you're scratching and clawing to make the playoffs. You don't have time to be in a three-week bad mood because of a game you lost. You've got to get it out, let it fl y, be consistent with how you do it, but let 'er rip and then get back to work."

For the most part, the Leafs don't have much to be ashamed of through their first five games. They've shown far more team speed than anticipated and they've been a very committed club, top to bottom. The work ethic has been there and that has translated

into an average of 3 8 shots on goal a game, a surprisingly high number for a team that was believed to be weak on offence.

RASH OF INJURIES

They have been saddled with a rash of injuries to their defence corps and that may have had a hand in the collapse Thursday. It didn't help backup goalie J.S. Aubin's confidence going forward

that it happened on his watch, during his fi rst game of the season. He probably will have to stew in his own juices on that one for a week or two before he gets another chance to fi ll in for Andrew Raycroft.

The Calgary Flames, who handed Ottawa its third consecutive home-ice defeat this season by a skinny 1-0 count two nights ago, will be a rather bigger handful for the Leafs tonight.

"I don't think there were more than two, maybe three, hits in that entire game (Thursday) night," Maurice said, speaking of the New Jersey game.

"It was not a physically demanding game and the exact opposite is going to happen (tonight). We're going to have to really fi ght for our ice and win all those one-on-ones."

Maurice didn't say it, because he didn't need to, but "all those one-on-ones" will have to be fought without catching the attention of the referees.

Rodeo just doesn't cut it in today's NHL.


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