Leafs into the ice-melt

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

The Maple Leafs had just suffered another third-period meltdown last night, and Jason Blake was peeved.

Standing in front of reporters in the solemn Leafs dressing room, Blake pulled no punches in questioning his team's work ethic when it comes to closing out games.

"Every time we have a lead, we get burned," the speedy winger calmly said after yet another Leafs collapse, an inexcusable 6-4 defeat to the fatigued Chicago Blackhawks at the Air Canada Centre.

"We sit back, don't play as hard, and that's why you take penalties."

The Leafs "don't play as hard?" As controversial as that suggestion might be, captain Mats Sundin had no quibble with Blake's candid words.

"I agree," said Sundin, whose two-goal effort was one of the few bright spots for an otherwise hot-and-cold Leafs team. "That third period was terrible. We were soft. We took penalties. We didn't skate well.

"I don't know what's going on, but this is a big concern. When you are up 3-1 going into the third period against a (tired) team, you should be able to close it out."

Let's be honest here. When two prominent team leaders such as Blake and Sundin are wondering in public why this team does not always put out a maximum effort when two points are there for the taking, it does not bode well..

The stats tell the story.

In five of their first nine games this season, the Leafs have entered the third period either leading or tied and failed to go on to victory.

Last night's wilting saw the Leafs belch up a 3-1 advantage in the final 20 minutes.

The Hawks reeled off four consecutive goals in 12 minutes, courtesy of Andrei Zyuzin, Duncan Keith, Robert Lang and Patrick Sharp, to turn a two-goal deficit into a two-goal lead. Chad Kilger and Tuomo Ruutu exchanged goals late in the period.

So much for home cooking.

With eight of their first 10 games in the alleged friendly confines of the ACC, the Leafs knew getting off to a good start to the season was vital.

Instead, they will need a win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday night to finish that 10-game stint at .500.

After that, 10 of the next 16 games will be on the road, including appearances in tough buildings such as Madison Square Garden in New York, Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena and Ottawa's Scotiabank Place.

From his perch behind the bench, beleaguered Leafs coach Paul Maurice must be beside himself after watching his team crumble in the third period, yet again.

Back on Monday, the Leafs entered the final period leading Buffalo 2-0, only to end up losing 5-4 in overtime on Bryan McCabe's own-goal.

McCabe couldn't be blamed for last night. This was a team loss, through and through.

And now, Maurice must come to grips with a team that can't hold leads, gives up far too many goals, takes too many penalties (power-play chances were 7-1 in favour of the Hawks last night), and has a couple of its leaders questioning the team's effort.


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