'So much out of place'

Leafs centre Boyd Devereaux battles with Hurricanes defenceman Tim Gleason during first period...

Leafs centre Boyd Devereaux battles with Hurricanes defenceman Tim Gleason during first period action at the ACC last night. (Sun Media/Greg Henkenhaf)

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:33 AM ET

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been looking for an identity this year.

Things like mean, lean, hungry, aggressive. Last night the Carolina Hurricanes slapped another sticker on their back: "Kick Me!"

And then they proceeded to do precisely that, handing the team its worst home loss in head coach Paul Maurice's tenure here.

That it came against his former team likely made it hurt a little bit more. But, reality is that after all the talk by the Leafs about having each other's backs, all they did was stick in the knife and twist last night.

This is a team that has arrived most nights like a bear coming out of hibernation. They've played hard and they've had a nasty streak. Nobody would accuse them of giving folks flashbacks of the Broad St. Bullies. And by comparison, they look like choir boys next to the Anaheim Ducks, who evidently think the Sopranos are a good business model.

The Leafs have had 28 short-handed situations -- the most in the Eastern Conference. It was that intensity in attitude -- and some great penalty-killing -- that earned them a comeback win against Montreal and plaudits for staying close with Ottawa.

Last night they had every reason to be hyped again, coming off a big win, playing their coach's former team, and coming off 24 hours of talk about playing one for cancer-stricken Jason Blake.

Instead they were every definition of awful. "We could go through the whole list," said head coach Paul Maurice, who stared across the ice in the third period like he was seeing a ghost. "We were just very poor in most areas of the game."

When the coach doesn't even try to sugarcoat an effort, you know it's bad. When the best players on the ice are the guy with cancer and the goalie, you know it's bad.

The Leafs got away from everything they've tried to do all year. They tried to skate with the Hurricanes and ended up looking like Perdita Felicien hitting the first hurdle.

"We tried to play someone else's game," Maurice said. "We don't have that kind of speed. (Darcy) Tucker got a penalty for hitting a guy just because there hadn't been (any hits) before. It just was so much out of place in the game."

For Toronto, nothing worked. The defence looked slow. They were undisciplined. In other words they were everything Maurice has been preaching that they shouldn't be all through preseason. It's not that the players don't know what they need to do to succeed.

PLAY WITH AN EDGE

"We have to (play with an edge) to be successful. We have to have an identity and be a hard-working team," defenceman Bryan McCabe said after the morning skate yesterday.

"Our identity has to be to compete for every puck, to skate hard, check. That's what we are. We're not the most overly skilled group in the league but we can make up for a lot of that with hard work."

Last night there was too little of any of that and a bit of air just went out of that balloon of optimism the team has been flying since training camp opened.

"We're still searching for an identity," said Maurice, digesting the team's worst home loss since Oct. 29, 2005, when they were drubbed 8-0.

This Leafs team wasn't the same one Glen Wesley thought he had been seeing in videos preparing for last night. The Hurricanes defenceman, who spent the end of the 2003 season in Toronto, said at the morning skate this Leafs team had taken Maurice's identity. Tough. Intense. Purposeful.

"I think there's more structure to their game than they've had in the past -- even when I was here. Sometimes (before this year) you couldn't figure out what their tendencies were or what they were trying to do out there sometimes. Now, they seem to have a plan."

Of course that was before he watched them blow up last night. Like at the end of the second period when Darcy Tucker got slap-happy with Dennis Seidenberg.

Perhaps it was frustration. By then the Leafs were down 4-1 and leaving to boos. It also wasn't terribly smart. When Scott Walker banked a shot off Hal Gill's skate, this one was all done except for the finger-pointing.

Said Hurricanes Cory Stillman: "Any time you get down by two or three goals it's easy to get frustrated and start running around. It happens to everyone. They're not 7-1 bad and we're not 7-1 good."

He's right. This night, the Leafs were worse.


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