Leafs on hook for start

Alexei Ponikarovsky appeals to an official during Saturday's loss to the Blackhawks, but it has...

Alexei Ponikarovsky appeals to an official during Saturday's loss to the Blackhawks, but it has been a lack of discipline, not poor officiating, that has led to the Leafs' slow start. (Sun Media/Dave Abel)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:33 AM ET

Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson was not offering up any excuses about his team's disappointing 3-4-1 start yesterday.

Truth be told, there are no legitimate ones.

Coming out of training camp, Ferguson and head coach Paul Maurice had two mandates they were focusing on heading into the 2007-08 regular season.

"We wanted to be a harder team to play against," Ferguson said yesterday. "And we wanted to cut down our goals against.

"The fact that we have not been able to achieve those goals thus far is quite disappointing."

The Leafs have missed injured regulars Carlo Colaiacovo and Kyle Wellwood, who might make their season debuts this week. Suspended forward Mark Bell, meanwhile, must sit out another six games before he is eligible to return to action against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 6.

But the absence of those three players does not make up for the Leafs' wobbly break out of the gate. The team has simply had too many warts in the early stages:

RED LIGHT DISTRICT

Team defence has been the Achilles heel of this team.

The Leafs have allowed a league-leading 37 goals, one more than the 1-7 Atlanta Thrashers. Defensive zone coverage has been a sore spot, a problem that cuts much deeper than just poor play from the team's beleaguered group of blue-liners.

"It's about team defence," Ferguson said.

"The play of our forwards in our own end has been just as concerning as that of our defencemen."

CAN'T CLOSE IT

Meltdowns. Collapses. Call them what you want.

Either way, the Leafs are squandering far too many potential points by crumbling in the latter stages of games.

In five of its nine games, Toronto has been tied or in the lead heading into the third period.

Most alarming to management must be the fact that the team has done that in three of its past four outings.

"We don't have a lot of confidence when protecting the lead," defenceman Bryan McCabe said last night. "We sit back too much and end up paying the price."

So what will it take to change this disturbing trend?

"Easy," he said. "We have to find a way to protect a third-period lead and win one of these things."

BACKUP BLUES

For the past five games, opponents have brushed the cobwebs off their backup goaltenders in time to face the Leafs, who have failed to take advantage of the opportunity.

The Leafs are just 2-3 in that span, clawing their way to victories over the New York Islanders' Wade Dubliewitz and the Florida Panthers' Craig Anderson, while dropping decisions to Patrick Lalime (Chicago), Jocelyn Thibault (Buffalo) and Dany Sabourin (Pittsburgh). Sabourin did leave in the first period with an injury and was replaced by the Pens' No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

The backup trend likely will continue tomorrow against Atlanta, with Johan Hedberg now carrying the load after starter Kari Lehtonen went down with a groin injury.

RAIN OF RUBBER

If Vesa Tostaka and Andrew Raycroft continue to be pelted by this many shots, they might be ready to take up residency in a rubber room by the time the season comes to an end.

The Leafs are allowing an average of 35.33 shots per game, leaving them as one of the worst teams in the league in that category.

They have given up fewer than 30 shots just three times in nine games, with their season low 28.

SIN-BINNERS

Despite repeated pleas from the coaching staff to stay out of the penalty box, the Leafs keep taking undisciplined minors.

Entering play yesterday Toronto had been shorthanded a league-high 61 times, an average of just lss than seven times per outing. Opponents have gobbled up those opportunites, scoring 14 power-play goals.

HOUSE OF HORRORS

The Leafs have failed to take advantage of an early home-heavy schedule, going just 3-3-1 at the Air Canada Centre thus far. Opponents have outscored Toronto 29-27 in the Leafs' home rink.


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