Leafs left wondering

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:02 AM ET

MONTREAL -- The current Maple Leafs team can't be guaranteed of a playoff spot and the next few hours will determine if an altered version gets the chance.

Toronto entered the trade deadline today spinning its wheels in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, falling three points behind the Canadiens after a 5-4 loss last night at the Bell Centre.

After muted discussion of trade upheaval in the preceding weeks, the Leafs looked jangled in the face of a ferocious Montreal attack before rallying in the third with two goals on the strength of re-jigged lines and eight saves on eight shots by backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin.

Rumours persisted throughout the day the Leafs remained in the Bill Guerin hunt -- "he would be great in here," one enthused Leaf said -- though Toronto appeared to be at the back of the line for any major deal, unwilling to surrender any coveted prospects as it tries to re-stock the cupboard. Many teams are asking the Leafs for hot young sniper Alex Steen. He scored his 13th goal of the season last night and recorded his ninth point in 10 games.

"That stuff is out of my hands," Steen said. "I only know this is the most fun time of year to play, spring's coming around, and it's playoff time."

Any move involving Steen likely is a no-go with general manager John Ferguson, who spent yesterday in Toronto in meetings.

The Leafs led 1-0 on a Bates Battaglia goal, but it stood up just one minute 38 seconds before Montreal scored three.

"I highly doubt (today's 3 p.m. deadline) affected us at the start," centre John Pohl said. "But whatever happens today, we'll adjust to it and move on."

NO CALL

The Leafs complained loud and long about a Garth Murray high stick on Mats Sundin that wasn't called in the final two minutes. The game ended with Aubin on the bench and the Leafs circling around goalie David Aebischer.

While not as devastating as back-to-back losses here in March of last year, Toronto could have been seventh with a win. After seven consecutive matches against teams out of the playoffs, it gets the top-ranked Buffalo Sabres tonight at home.

Coach Paul Maurice gave Raycroft the hook after five goals on 16 shots.

"Horrible," Raycroft said of his night and having to take a solitary seat opposite the bench, surrounded by hecklers.

The Habs, who shook up their club Sunday by dealing long-serving Craig Rivet, scored on two lightning-fast power-play draws. Tomas Plekanec, Michael Ryder and Mike Johnson had early goals, with Saku Koivu and Sheldon Souray following suit after Bryan McCabe ended Toronto's three-game power-play drought.

Jeremy Williams scored early in the third for Toronto, giving him two goals in as many games in his brief Leafs career, with the first last April. That was followed by Steen's goal as Maurice opened with third with a line of Sundin, Williams and Battaglia, with Pohl taking the captain's place between Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky.

Souray collected his 22nd goal of the year, the most by an NHL defenceman since Sergei Gonchar had 26 in 2001-02.

The Leafs fell to 10-10-0-4 in games against Northeast Division opponents.

REPORT CARD

C Forwards: Stopped working after the opening goal, rebounded in the third.

C Defence: Had great difficulty with Montreal's forecheck.

C - Goaltending: Raycroft received little support, Jean-Sebastien Aubin fared much better.


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