Calling in the ... reinforcements?

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:21 AM ET

And, so, on the mourning after being taken out behind the woodshed by the Carolina Hurricanes the Maple Leafs gathered to weep the rewards.

Nothing but tears, toil and tribulation.

It included a brisk practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena and some terse words from coach Paul Maurice who, despite public sentiment, resisted any temptation to pass around the Kool-Aid bottle. Oh, and if Alexei Ponikarovsky was a horse they might've had to shoot him. Other than that, walking through the Leafs dressing room is like taking a trip through Happy Valley.

There wasn't much to like about the 7-1 loss to Carolina. The hardest hit delivered on a Carolina jersey all night was when Trevor Letowski got his bell rung -- and that only happened because his own teammate ran into him.

So, how bad was it, Wade Belak?

"I watched it from home. I left after the second period," he said yesterday. Okay, so the Leafs' one-man laugh-track was kidding, but the truth is words like embarrassed, unacceptable, disgraceful and awful were much mentioned yesterday. And, those are just the ones that had more than four letters and can be repeated. If ever a team needed a superhero to come to the rescue, it would be the Leafs.

IT WAS COMING

"We have a number of players, our bottom six forwards, who have not had good starts. They were on notice," Maurice said. "We told them we needed more out of them. That fourth line didn't get off the bench much in the four games but part of that was we didn't feel confident putting them on the ice. They knew it was coming."

What was coming, just four games into what was supposed to be the season that Maurice's master plan to revamp the franchise begins to unfold, were top-to-bottom line changes and a siren run to the Ricoh Centre.

No superheroes. Instead they're getting Simon Gamache and defenceman Anton Stralman, a couple of Marlies who practised yesterday with the team, and Belak.

"It's fun anytime you get called. I'm just happy to be here," said Stralman, evidently unaware that he is about to step into hockey's version of The Twilight Zone.

How else do you explain Ponikarovsky? Yesterday in scrimmage he skated into the same corner where he injured his shoulder last winter. This time he collided with a big hurt named Chad Kilger.

In a blink, Ponikarovsky is on his knees, spewing venom, smashing his helmet on the ice -- and minutes later being helped to the dressing room favouring his left leg. He might not play tonight against the Islanders. Then again ... "It's not as bad as we feared on the ice, based on the language," Maurice said. As for that corner of the ice, he added wryly: "He's not allowed to practise at that end anymore."

Belak is well rested, if nothing else. He hasn't played a meaningful game since March 20. That was the night fans chanted his name after he answered hockey's call of the wild and spent one minute and thirty-five memorable seconds trading punches with the Devils' Cam Janssen.

"I'm like a boxer. One fight, then take the next six months off," Belak said yesterday, adding a note of humour into a rather bleak morning.

Observed Belak: "It's never a good time whenever you're embarrassed like that and know you haven't played well. The mood is kind of sombre in the dressing room."

No one had to write Belak a script that night back in March. Called in defence of the injured Tomas Kaberle, he knew all his lines. But, this time, the job is a little trickier. It's going to take more than popping someone in the nose to fix what ails the Leafs.

"It's tough to watch when you get beat like that; when nothing is going right," he said.

Tonight, Maurice is expecting him to be physical, to forecheck but to stay out of the penalty box. "Our game is based on a certain amount of forechecking and physicalness," Maurice said, "and those were the two things (against Carolina) that killed us."

So, while normally Belak is the guy being asked to wipe the grin off someone's face, tonight he's being asked to help put the smile back in the Leafs Nation.


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