No gas in Leafs tank

TERRY KOSHAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

The price of success is hard work.

That's the motto painted inside the Maple Leafs dressing room at the Air Canada Centre, though one has to wonder whether the players even notice it anymore in a 2007-08 season that has been worse than many of the prognosticators figured last fall.

Jammed in 14th place in the Eastern Conference with another 20 games remaining before their misery ends, the Leafs lost 5-1 last night to a Buffalo Sabres team that needed a shootout to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 24 hours earlier while the Toronto players were snug in their beds.

"We have a much better team than the standings are showing," said defenceman Pavel Kubina, trying lamely to put a positive spin on the season from hell. "We are professionals and we want to win every night and we still have a shot at it."

Maybe in some parallel universe, but not the one that includes Leafs Nation. Anyone who thinks the Leafs should be tanking games and falling to the bottom of the NHL's depths on purpose so they can have Steven Stamkos handed to them on a silver platter at the draft in June in Ottawa is missing the point.

The Leafs, now nine points out of the playoffs and with only the Tampa Bay Lightning as a cushion, don't have to throw games away to lose. That's what even marginally good teams would have to resort to, but the Leafs are not a marginally good team. Hard work, which they had in spurts against Buffalo, has not been enough for the Leafs to cut it this season.

Said goalie Vesa Toskala: "We played hard, had lots of scoring chances but we did not score. I think you have to see the big picture."

Captain Mats Sundin, who was a no-show for the morning skate because he was sick but managed to fill a uniform for the game, did not speak to reporters afterward. Too bad, because interim general manager Cliff Fletcher said earlier in the evening that he would not try to force Sundin's hand in the minutes before the NHL trade deadline on Tuesday afternoon.

Of course, that could imply that any time in the next few days would be up for grabs.

Sundin had a difficult game, going minus-2 and watching from the penalty box as Derek Roy scored Buffalo's fourth goal at 14:49 of the second period.

Kubina scored the Leafs' goal at 2:48 of the second period when he was sprung on a breakaway by Tomas Kaberle and beat Ryan Miller with a backhand deke. For the Sabres, who have won 10 of their past 14 and moved into a playoff spot, Ales Kotalik had two goals, and Brian Campbell and Thomas Vanek also scored.

The Leafs outshot the Sabres 35-23 but were inept with a man advantage. Kubina's goal was on a power play but was an aberration. The Leafs had three consecutive power plays in the first period, but by the third one, could not get a shot on Miller. It's nothing short of frightening to think of a post-deadline power-play unit without Sundin, even though it was 28th in the NHL with him on it before last night.

Stajan, who led all Leafs forwards with 21 minutes two seconds of ice time, quietly has become of the Leafs' voices of reason in the dressing room. After the morning skate, Stajan spoke of the urgency his team needed. After the game, the despair was obvious.

"These are the games we have to try to win to get back into it," Stajan said. "It was a good chance for us. It's disappointing."


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