Seeing beyond blind faith

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

When the Maple Leafs missed the playoffs two years ago, there were calls for mild repercussions such as public hangings at Nathan Phillips Square.

When the Maple Leafs missed the playoffs last year it was the closest thing to a national disaster to hit Toronto since Mel Lastman spotted a snowflake over North York.

But even that does not come close to the travesty and abuse of a public trust being perpetrated by this season's Maple Leafs, who are closing in on becoming the first NHL team in Toronto to miss the playoffs three consecutive years since 1927-28.

How embarrassing was that? Don't know, but they changed the name from St. Patrick's to Maple Leafs. These days fans just walk around with paper bags on their heads.

Last night, in a 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, head coach Paul Maurice yanked netminder Vesa Toskala with three minutes to play.

"There was nothing to lose," Alexei Ponikarovsky said. By then the Leafs power play had fizzled and a holding penalty to Mats Sundin in the offensive zone set the stage for Buffalo's fourth goal.

Maurice agreed yanking Toskala was a desperate last act in a game. He believed the team had to win.

"You don't want to create a sense that you're packing it in," he said. But, now nine points out of a playoff spot, perchance the playoff train has already left the building without what Alex Steen was describing earlier in the day as the best Toronto team on which he has played.

"Is this the best team since I've been here? It's a fair question?" he said. "Position-wise in the standings we've been better in other years but to be honest I expected more this year. I think everyone in this room did.

Everyone had high hopes because we believed in each other.

"When we came into the season I looked at the team and we had our core players, the strength of our team. We added Vesa (Toskala in goal), and Mark Bell and with all the younger guys a year older everyone thought we had a playoff team."

But last night against a team they have to pass to reach the playoffs, Maurice noted: "I expected more urgency."

And, if this team is better than the previous two years it makes the current predicament all the more reprehensible. It means that Maurice is getting less out of more, not a pleasant thought for fans or management or Maurice himself.

The loss left Toronto at 59 points. Last year on this date the team was 10th with 65 points. Two years ago the team finished with 90 points. Last year they had 91 points and missed the playoffs by one point. This year, they'll be lucky to hit 70.

So, was last night the breaking point? "Hope. It has to stay in your mind," said a downcast Alex Ponikarovsky. "Because if we lose hope, you're just dead."

Last night they shot wide. They fanned on shots. They hit Sabres defencemen as much as they did the net.

"All three years I thought we had teams good enough to make the playoffs. I still have faith," Steen said. What they do not have is much of a chance.

The statistics say this team is not as good as last year. After 62 games they've allowed 199 goals, the same as last year. But the offence has dipped to 169 from 198 goals .

What happened? "We've had injuries but we had those last year, too," said Steen, scoreless in his last seven games. "We haven't had the consistency in our game."

Jason Blake hasn't scored in eight games, Matt Stajan has one in the past 11 games and Kyle Wellwood has one goal in the past 25 games.

When asked if he thought, like Steen, that this was a better team than the one he had a year ago, Maurice demurred:

"That's a really legitimate question but it sounds like you're asking me to do the autopsy before the last rites are being given. Let's wait and see what develops."

Smooth. Very smooth. Now, if he could only get his team to play that smooth.


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