Leafs hit bottom rung

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

This was to be the Maple Leafs' bold stand to protect their house. Instead, they put their stamp on Steven Stamkos or another high draft pick.

Toronto began a stretch of five consecutive games at home by tying a club futility record with its 20th one-goal loss -- 5-4 to the New York Islanders.

As the Leafs gave up four power-play goals to the Isles and blew a minute-long 5-on-3 at the end, they watched Tampa Bay, via the out-of-town scoreboard, dump them into last place in the Eastern Conference and 29th overall.

Only the Los Angeles Kings now sit between them and a good shot at projected No. 1 Stamkos of the Sarnia Sting.

"We've got enough to worry about (in the Leaf room)," captain Mats Sundin said. "We've got to move up and try to win some games ourselves."

But that's becoming a hollow refrain. Last night was no Valentine arrow through the heart. It was death by a thousand cuts -- special-teams failure, bad penalties, sloppy play at critical junctures.

"Sometimes, we're more ready against the top teams than the teams near us in the standings," goalie Vesa Toskala said. "The key tonight was that we were not ready at the start."

The 20 one-goal losses matched the Leafs' worst mark of 2005-06, when the shootout was introduced. In 13 of those results, the Leafs have scored two goals or fewer.

"It's tough, because (close games) mean you have a chance to win," Toskala said. "I try to forget about it as soon as possible. You have to be ready for the next game."

The Leafs gave Cliff Fletcher all the ammunition he needs to start dealing early next week at the NHL general managers meetings in Naples, Fla. They remain eight points out of a playoff berth with 23 games to play and now six teams to pass.

SLIPPING AWAY?

Alexei Ponikarovsky, whose goal with 19 seconds to play gave a sliver of hope, was asked if he feels the season slipping away, on the heels of a 1-0 loss in Buffalo the night before.

"Basically, that's what's going on," he sighed. "But we can't feel sorry for ourselves. We can't give up and do nothing."

The Leafs' attempted third-period comeback was helped by Matt Stajan's power play goal at 10:16, making it 4-3. The youngster has been getting trade-showcase ice time in the 19- to 22-minute range since Fletcher replaced John Ferguson last month.

Also on the bright side, the Leafs haven't even had a top- three pick since Scott Thornton in 1989, the same year a kid named Mats Sundin, with a shock of blonde hair, went first overall to Quebec.

Toronto had only 13 shots through two periods, making people wonder what happened to the concept of banking home points in October to save for a rainy (or snowy) day in February. The Leafs talked a good game when the schedule was released, 8-2 in favour of Air Canada Centre dates. But the Leafs won only two of those and so began last night's run needing to take them all.

"These are the most critical five we'll play all year," said coach Paul Maurice.

Bryan McCabe took three minors last night and Sundin one. The Isles were only a few places better than the 29th-place Leafs power play.

"We've had a lot of injuries, but some guys step up," coach Ted Nolan said.

Ex-Leaf Bryan Berard made it 1-0, part of his three-point night. Ruslan Fedotenko had two goals in building up a 4-2 lead. Stajan's weird bank shot was credited to Darcy Tucker and Sundin put in a Tomas Kaberle rebound.


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