Leafs in a 'dogfight'

Even as the Maple Leafs languish in a four-game slump, captain Mats Sundin cracks a smile as he...

Even as the Maple Leafs languish in a four-game slump, captain Mats Sundin cracks a smile as he takes part in the club's annual skills competition at the Air Canada Centre yesterday. (Toronto Sun/Stan Behal)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:04 AM ET

Two of the hardest Christmas gifts to find right now are a Wii for the kids and a W for the Maple Leafs.

Goaltender Andrew Raycroft shrugged off any moral victory in Montreal on Saturday, a game in which the Leafs finally got a lead but then couldn't protect it, losing 4-3 in a shootout to the Canadiens.

It was Toronto's fourth consecutive defeat.

"We're judged on our record, that's what it comes down to," Raycroft said yesterday. "We have to find ways to win games, but it's such a long season. To worry about one week isn't really looking at the big picture."

However, four defeats and a surge by clubs such as Ottawa and Washington means this week starts with nine clubs on both sides of the playoff ledger separated by five points.

"(Coach) Paul Maurice came in the first day and said 'It's gonna be a dogfight' and no one believed him," Raycroft said. "Everyone thought someone would run away with it. But it is a dogfight and we know it. We just have to stick with it."

The Leafs lost valuable ground the past week, but are about to face two of the clubs that beat them, the Atlanta Thrashers here tomorrow and the Bruins in Boston on Thursday.

"You play each other so many times (in the Northeast Division), that not many teams will be sweeping another 8-0. It just doesn't happen. It will end up being 6-2, 5-3, 4-4 and it just all kind of washes out in the mix."

But the Leafs already are trailing in their season series against Boston, Buffalo, Montreal and Ottawa.

"We're not playing as bad as it looks," winger Alexei Ponikarovsky said. "It's just some circumstances, some bad bounces or whatever. We're putting a lot of shots on the net and working hard. If you're doing that, it will pay off soon."

General manager John Ferguson pointed to a pair of factors in the slump, a lack of finish that was camouflaged by a 7-1 win in Washington barely a week ago and what he perceives as a stiffening of defensive play throughout the National Hockey League.

"The games have appeared a little different the past few weeks," Ferguson said. "I see mostly our games, of course, but it seems guys have to overcome more physical hurdles getting to the net and that looks like something we're going to have to adjust to."

The Leafs have just six goals during the losing streak, but Ferguson insisted there was "no correlation" between that and his taking in an extra Marlies game in Hamilton on Friday. The Marlies won, but lost subsequent games to Syracuse and Milwaukee.

"We're always keeping track of who is doing well and who is not," Ferguson said.


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