If you meet a Maple Leaf on the street today, do not pester him for a Christmas donation.
They all gave at the office last night -- gave until it hurt. The grateful recipients were Gary Roberts and Ed Belfour, home for a holiday in a 7-3 romp by their Florida Panthers. The Leafs went from well-oiled 9-2 winners over the New York Rangers and owners of a three-game winning streak to high-risk, mistake-prone sluggo hockey. Just 24 hours earlier they claimed they had learned their lesson from a seven-game losing streak.
"Apparently not," defenceman Bryan McCabe said dryly. "We didn't compete at all. We got beaten in all ends of the rink and it showed in the score."
By the end of the night, defenceman Hal Gill was minus-three and a nervous wreck, top blue liners McCabe and Tomas Kaberle also were wearing goat horns and starting goaltender Andrew Raycroft was on the bench. But at least he was still allowed near the ice. Centre Michael Peca was booted for two misconducts and an unsportsmanlike behaviour minor.
"I'm trying to find a way to assess our play, using the acceptable metaphors," bristling coach Paul Maurice said. "They were a lot quicker than we were. We were just slow and soft. They were good and we were horse(bleep)."
Gill was culpable on at least two goals, stripped on a Ville Peltonen breakaway and then feeding Roberts a "stupid" cross-ice pass in his opening shift of the second period. He also seemed to accidentally steer in the final Florida goal, which was first credited to Roberts as a hat trick, then later to Nathan Horton.
"It's a shame when a couple of mistakes by one guy can throw a game back like that," Gill said. "I got into the second period and I wanted to do too much and ended up costing the team more. That was the story with everyone."
But Maurice pointed out that Gill was a team-best plus-eight coming into the game and "wasn't the worst defenceman on the ice, just the most noticeable."
If winger Alexei Ponikarovsky had buried even one of the early excellent chances that linemates Mats Sundin and Kyle Wellwood provided, perhaps the wheels wouldn't have come off so early. Instead, his penalty in the second period sealed the deal as Martin Gelinas made it 5-1. The Leafs actually led 1-0 on a Jeff O'Neill goal.
But Roberts had two for the Cats, with singles to Rostislav Olesz and Joel Kwiatkowski.
Tomas Kaberle and Carlo Colaiacovo scored late for the Leafs, the latter's second goal in as many games.