Players saying positive things ...

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

The Maple Leafs were searching deep and long last night not to find a discouraging word.

Mention was made of Alexei Ponikarovsky's game-tying goal with less than 10 ticks left on the clock.

"It's a good bonus point," said Nik Antropov, who had another strong game.

Paul Maurice said he liked the goaltending and Vesa Toskala did look good with acrobatic stops on Bryan Little, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Eric Perrin.

Hal Gill even scored a goal, and it wasn't on his own netminder. So the defence was better.

"We make smart decisions, our goalies have been playing great, we had opportunities," Jason Blake said.

And, then, from the deep within the inner sanctum of the Leafs dressing room someone dropped a loud F-bomb that dripped of exasperation.

One word, and it said it all. In the final analysis whatever this team did better last night it still wasn't good enough to beat the team with the worst record in the NHL as the Atlanta Thrashers scored a 5-4 shootout win.

"We got a point but this is a game we wanted to win," said a disappointed Blake, "but it didn't happen. We need to turn it around and we need to turn it around quick."

After eight of 10 games at home, the team heads out on what looks like a road to nowhere.

"I don't know what to say, that was two teams battling with confidence," said Sundin, who once again was a star in a dark galaxy for Toronto.

Everyone is searching for answers. Said coach Paul Maurice yesterday morning: "We've done a good job ... I like the way we've been practising."

Maybe the league could start handing out a point for teams who practice well. It might be the only way the Maple Leafs can find a way into the playoffs.

This team has more gaps than a hockey player's smile. And one of the biggest has been the space between some of their ears.

Going into last night's game the Leafs had played short-handed 61 times - most in the NHL. Atlanta, in comparison, has been short-handed 48 times.

"Most of those penalties weren't on the forecheck. They were on plays where we lost the puck and were trying to get back possession. Guys are trying so hard to get the puck back, you reach and with the stick penalties today you can't get away with those anymore," Chad Kilger said.

So what happens last night? They take five penalties, all for stick infractions. They let Ilya Kovalchuk run around the ACC like he owned the place; then in typical Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion completely dominated the final two minutes. The Thrashers couldn't get the puck out of their zone and Ponikarovsky finally poked it in from a mad scramble.

This is a team that has lost its strut. They couldn't find confidence in a dictionary. Coughing up two-goal leads three times can do that to a team - and last night wasn't a lot of help.

"We didn't win the game and that's what it boils down too," Blake said.

This is a team that is on the fringe of self-loathing.

"On a personal level, every guy feels responsible ... that you could've done better," Kilger said after a practice earlier this week.

With eight games off the home schedule now they have been feeling all the love at the ACC of a guy who shows up at home on his anniversary, walks in the door empty-handed and asks: "What's for dinner?"

Last night the Leafs forgot to duck with Kovalchuk dooming them to their fifth loss when Steve McCarthy broke up a three-on-one in overtime. The Thrashers are built for shootouts. Toronto? Not so much.

A loss last night was unthinkable.

Said Blake before the game: "It's way too early to push the panic button. Teams go through this every year. There's teams that lose eight, 10 in a row and they still make the playoffs and do really well. We're going to be fine."

Of course, that's what they said about the Titanic, too.

"We're playing great in spurts," said Blake when it was over, "and we have to play great the whole game. I don't know why that is and I don't know how we fix it."


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