Tampa sticks it to Leafs

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 3:44 PM ET

TAMPA -- As Vinny Lecavalier and his teammates celebrated the dramatic winning goal with just 42 seconds remaining in regulation, Pavel Kubina's shattered stick lay 170 feet away in the Tampa Bay Lightning zone.

And with it rested the shattered dreams of the exasperated Maple Leafs

Lecavalier may have delivered the final dagger into the hearts of the Leafs last night, but it was the sprinkled graphite pieces at the other end of the rink that broke the backs of the visitors.

With the Maple Leafs swarming all over rookie goalie Karri Ramo just moments earlier in a tie game, Kubina's attempt to blast a shot from the point crumbled when his composite stick busted at the shaft.

The Lightning gobbled up the loose puck and quickly came the other way, finishing off the play with a Lecavalier one-timer off a Marty St. Louis feed that gave the hosts a dramatic 2-1 victory at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Yet more last-minute heartbreak for a Leafs team that has now collected just three-of-a-possible-eight points on this lengthy road swing, which continues tomorrow night in Florida against the Panthers.

"I had an open shooting lane and the stick just snapped in the middle," said Kubina, a key member of Tampa Bay's 2004 Stanley Cup-winning team. "In the past four or five games, there have been a lot of sticks broken. There's nothing you can do.

"It's tough. We had a lot of chances but couldn't get the win. It reminds me of the last game."

Kubina was referring to the Leafs' 3-2 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday, a contest in which they surrendered the tying goal with just 27 seconds remaining after an indecisive Alexei Ponikarovsky was stripped of the puck when he took too long to shoot it into the open net.

There is one major difference between these two late-game collapses.

The Carolina loss came courtesy of faulty decision-making.

This one came via faulty equipment.

That won't make the Leafs feel any better, however, especially since they wasted yet another outstanding performance by goalie Vesa Toskala.

Toskala was the best Leaf in Carolina and could make a strong argument for being the same last night. He had absolutely no chance on Lecavalier's sharp-angle blast, a pin-point bullet that found the back of the net before Toskala could successfully dive across his crease.

"Marty made the perfect play," Lecavalier said of the well-placed St. Louis pass. "I got pretty lucky there. I just wanted to get it on net."

PLAYING THE SHOOTER

Said Toskala: "I had to take St. Louis there in case he shot. It was too big a push to get across (for Lecavalier).

"It was a tough break again, what with the broken stick. You can't do anything about it. We have to move on."

Despite his acrobatics, Toskala and the Leafs came up short against fellow Finn Ramo, who was making his first NHL start.

Ramo made 31 saves on the night, the only puck to beat him a deflection off the skate of his own defenceman, Doug Janik. With Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist struggling for much of the season, Lightning general manager Jay Feaster figured it was time to give the Finnish kid a good look. He must have enjoyed what he saw.

Ramo and Toskala never had played against each other before but did go on a trip put together by stick manufacturer Montreal this past summer.

"He looked calm," Toskala said of Ramo. "He looked like he was under control all the time."

The same can't be said of the panicking members of Leafs Nation should Toronto suffer its fourth consecutive defeat tomorrow.

And for a Leafs team that finished one point out of a playoff spot a year ago, squandering more points late in a game is, as we keep stressing over and over again, something it simply can't afford.

Even if the cause was a shattered stick.


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