PITTSBURGH -- As the daily Maple Leafs soap opera breathlessly analyzes who will start in net and when, maybe the point is being missed.
What defence could there be for the last man standing after last night's listless 6-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins?
How about no defence?
After being hung out to dry by the men in front of him last night, Scott Clemmensen must have a different view of his two-game promotion from the AHL Marlies.
A three-goal third-period Penguins outburst in 48 seconds broke open a sleepy contest before 17,074 at the Mellon Arena and had the Leafs limping past the halfway point of the season.
"We got beat one-on-one. There wasn't much else to it," a clearly frustrated Leafs coach Paul Maurice said of the inexcusable collapse in the fourth minute of the final period.
"We are having a hard time defensively."
No need to make that announcement to Clemmensen, who has started the past two games.
Or, to Pens sniper Evgeni Malkin, who had his first career hat trick while dancing in and around Leafs defenders in the process.
On his first goal, which gave the Pens a 2-1 lead in the second period, Malkin pounced on a juicy rebound yielded by Clemmensen, easily fighting off the arms and stick of Leafs defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo.
The second, in the middle of the three-goal rush in the third, came after Malkin blew past lumbering Hal Gill, took a perfect feed from his setup man, Sidney Crosby, and buried the puck over the shoulder of Clemmensen.
"An outburst like that, it shouldn't happen," said Gill, speaking on behalf of the sad sack defence. "We should get fired up after they score a goal and go back at them and that didn't happen.
"When we play soft (that's what) happens."
It was bad enough that they hung their goaltender -- back for more in place of injured Vesa Toskala and struggling Andrew Raycroft -- out to dry. But the Leafs were actually in the game against a sleepy Penguins squad that looked as if it might still be recovering from its New Year's snow day in Buffalo.
The Leafs rang four shots off the goal post during the course of the game and even got some fortuitous bounces on a pair of goals from Jason Blake.
But when the defence goes missing, it won't take long for players such as Crosby and Malkin to seize the moment -- and to leave the Leafs wondering what hit them.
"We keep (making) mistakes in our own end that end up costing us games," Leafs captain Mats Sundin said. "Sometimes making the simple play and just keeping the puck, especially on the road (is the thing to do.) We don't have to make any fancy plays. We just have to keep it simple and chip away at it."
With the loss, the Leafs are now 3-5-2 in their past 10 and have won just once in the five games since Toskala suffered a groin injury.
The Penguins, meanwhile, are storming up the Eastern Conference standings with five consecutive wins and victories in 14 of 19 games since Nov. 22.
"We're on a roll," Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said. "At the same time, it's so tight that if you lose two games you're out of the playoffs because of the parity that we face in our conference."
Though he let out a few juicy rebounds and was caught snoozing on Erik Christensen's wraparound for the Pens' first goal, Clemmensen could hardly be blamed for this loss, despite allowing four goals in nine shots in third.
Instead, he too must have wondered what hit him during 48 seconds he would like to forget.
"Before we could take a breath, they popped three quick ones in on us," Clemmensen said. "That's why they are a good hockey club. They can make plays and can finish."
The Leafs can do neither right now and nights like this one will only add to the anxiousness for the return of Toskala. Though he participated in yesterday's game-day skate, he isn't likely to return to action until next week.
The hope, then, is that the defence beats him to the punch.