In a world of hurt

LANCE HORNBY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 8:09 AM ET

CHICAGO -- All they want for Christmas are their two front lines.

But the Maple Leafs are hurting, in pain and in pride, as they limped home from the United Center last night.

Centre Michael Peca's right knee was a mess -- a suspected torn medial collateral ligament and fractured tibia -- after a first period knee-on-knee collision with Jim Vandermeer of the Chicago Blackhawks, who weathered seven of eight Leafs power plays and scored short-handed in a 3-1 win.

The Leafs lineup is already in a state of flux, without first- liners Alexei Ponikarovsky and Kyle Wellwood. Peca was in an air cast after being helped off the ice, while coach Paul Maurice seethed about the incident.

"It was a knee-on-knee hit ... our guy is going to be out a long time and their's will probably be back in the minors before (Peca) gets back," Maurice said. "He's in quite a bit of pain, but we won't know until we get a better look inside. This is not a day-to-day, week-to-week thing. This is a bad knee injury."

Peca, while with the Islanders, required surgery on his left knee after a low-bridge hit by Darcy Tucker in 2002.

"It's tough when a guy who can barely play in the league, takes one of the best players in the league," Jeff O'Neill muttered of last night's incident. "I don't know if he meant to do it or not, but either way, it sucks for us."

Vandermeer, who has been part of the Hawks' regular lineup the past three years, challenged the Leafs to check the replay.

"They can say what they want," he said. "It was a slow-moving puck that we were both going for. I turned sideways to hit him and you can see on the replay my legs are together. It was more him dodging out of the way. I'll wait and see what the league says (about a possible suspension)."

Toronto got a John Pohl goal off the ensuing five-minute major, but that was it, including a full 5-on-3. For the night, the Leafs went 1-for-8 with the man advantage.

"We couldn't score on the power play. There's certainly no other byline, no other story," Maurice said. "We had three empty nets and couldn't put it in."

Tucker missed some close-in chances, the Leafs over-played the puck, while Bryan Smolinski scored short-handed in the second period and the Hawks won it early in the third period on Peter Bondra's 500th career goal past Jean-Sebastien Aubin.

The timid Leafs got pinned in their own end by strong Hawk checking in the dying minutes, leading to Brent Seabrook's clincher on a deflection.

"We either muffed the puck or (Nikolai Khabibulin) made some unbelievable saves," O'Neill said.

Mats Sundin played with a phone book of wingers, opening the night with O'Neill and Bates Battaglia, then playing some with Pohl among others.

The Leafs also lost Wade Belak early in the game when Patrick Sharp's stick accidentally sliced his forehead. He remained on the bench the rest of the night.

The Hawks, with the win, improved to 8-2-3 under Denis Savard.

The Leafs now have two home games to get re-organized, having dropped two straight after a three-game win streak. Andrew Raycroft is expected to start tonight against Washington.

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REPORT CARD

D Forwards: The Leafs power play, after John Pohl scored in the first period, was rancid and Darcy Tucker missed a breakaway and two potential tap-in goals.

C- Defence: The Leafs rearguards atoned in large part for a terrible game played on Tuesday against Florida, looking notably better in their own zone most of the night.

C- Goaltending: So many Leafs power plays meant little work for Jean-Sebastien Aubin, who allowed a short-handed goal.


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