PHILADELPHIA -- As the Maple Leafs winged their way back to Toronto last night after playing seven consecutive road contests, the haunting memories of the past two weeks must have gnawed away at their individual guts like a serving of rancid holiday turkey.
And with good reason.
They lost five of their past six outings.
They lost minute-gobbling defenceman Bryan McCabe until at least the all-star game with three broken bones in his left hand.
They lost goalie Vesa Toskala indefinitely with tightness in his groin, although the team is hoping it is not a long-term ailment.
They blew a two-goal lead in Carolina in the final 85 seconds and lost in overtime; dropped a 2-1 decision in Tampa when Vinny Lecavalier scored the winner with less than a minute remaining; and suffered a 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders on Wednesday when Mike Comrie ended the game with 9.6 seconds remaining in overtime.
And when the seven-game stint finally was over, capped off with a disappointing 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers last night at the Wachovia Center, captain Mats Sundin admitted his Leafs should have finished the seven games with more than the six points they came away with.
"We have to be better," said Sundin, who scored the Leafs' lone goal of the evening. "I mean, you look at the standings and there are 14 teams bunched into the same position we are. We realize if we put a couple of good weeks together we'll be a playoff team."
Another couple of stinky weeks like the past two, however, and their post-season aspirations will be even more daunting.
It's not that the Leafs played poorly throughout the trip, although Sundin figured last night's effort was their worst of the seven. The frustration comes from the fact that there simply were too many blown opportunities to move up the standings.
The stats will show the Leafs finished their stint away from home at 2-3-2, but that is misleading. Sure, they collected six points but it is the ones they gave away -- all to Eastern Conference foes -- that might chomp them in their collective rumps by the end of the season.
"At the start of the day we were just five points out of second in our conference," Sundin said. "But we must improve, especially defensively."
Goalie Andrew Raycroft, filling in for the sidelined Toskala, continues to be inconsistent. For the second consecutive night, he made a variety of spectacular saves but, at the same time, he continues to be dogged by allowing at least one poor goal per outing, a penchant he just can't seem to shake.
But the problems of this team run much deeper than Raycroft, despite the whinings of his many critics.
Jason Blake has just five goals and remains a defensive liability. Darcy Tucker continues to struggle to find the net. Kyle Wellwood finished minus-3 last night, leaving many to wonder if he has completely healed from his most-recent sports hernia surgery in September.
"We haven't played our best this trip, but we played better the majority of the time and we're just showing the results of not putting enough pucks in the net," frustrated coach Paul Maurice said.
The Leafs were outscored 18-14 in the seven games, Throw out their 4-0 victory in Atlanta on the opening leg of the road stint, and the margin is a more alarming 18-10.
Toronto has not played a home game since defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-1 at the Air Canada Centre on Dec. 10. They will be hoping to turn things around when they step back on home ice tomorrow against Sean Avery and the New York Rangers, a game primed to induce heated emotions on both sides.
At least Maurice can take solace in the fact that defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo returned to the lineup last night for the first time since undergoing knee surgery in late April. The young defenceman did not seem to miss a step against a hard-hitting Flyers squad that came out looking to take the body at every opportunity.
Yet this was a Flyers team that was ripe for the taking. Philadelphia came into the game having dropped six consecutive decisions, leaving one press box cynic to remark after the final horn that "the Leafs are the perfect remedy for any team's losing streak."
That analysis is a bit harsh and unfair. Having said that, Sundin and his mates must right the ship before the post-season is nothing but a distant dream.