Leafs rudderless without Mats

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:29 AM ET

Alex Steen stood by his locker in the wake of the Maple Leafs' 6-2 spanking Saturday at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres.

"I think this is the fourth time," Steen said, a hint of exasperation surfacing as he was asked ... again! ... what he thought of the team's effort. Next to him, the locker of Mats Sundin, captain of the good ship Titanic, stood deserted. So did most of the others.

Pavel Kubina was there. So was Alex Ponikarovsky. And Matt Stajan. Otherwise, the room stood empty except for a gaggle of reporters seeking answers to the inexplicable. Steen says he's learned a lot sitting next to his captain, about patience, about responsibility about what it means to be a leader, and on this night he got to practise all three.

He got to explain how a team could look so vital in two wins over Philadelphia then, against Buffalo, show up flatter than a bulimic runway model.

"We didn't have the start we wanted. They almost had more jump than we did, surprisingly considering we had two nights off. We wanted to have a good first period but they got the lead ... The goals we let in were them taking advantage of opportunities we gave them. It's disappointing. I don't know what to say -- we made too many mistakes."

Actually the past week has been a microcosm of the Leafs' season. Inconsistencies, surrounded by injury, wrapped in disillusionment. The heady talk in training camp of vying for the Stanley Cup is long forgotten with nine games remaining and a playoff spot slipping away.

This season began with Bryan McCabe putting the puck in his own net and the team has never quite righted itself. Their longest win streak is four games. They beat Ottawa 4-2, next game they lose to Florida 8-0. They get Mark Bell back from suspension and McCabe busts a hand. Only twice have they won three in a row. They beat Detroit and Montreal, then lose to the Islanders. Jason Blake doesn't come as advertised. He doesn't get 40, or even 20 goals. He does get cancer. They beat Philly to keep their playoff hopes alive; then can't beat a Sabres team as beat-up as they are.

"That's the story of the NHL today," interim general manager Cliff Fletcher said yesterday. "You have so many teams that are basically even. You're going to have games like (Saturday). Playing Buffalo is a totally different type of game than Philadelphia, with the speed that the Sabres forwards have. When we made it back to 3-2, I thought we were in the game but we're a little different team playing without Sundin and Antropov."

Sundin is nursing a pulled groin and his return for tomorrow on Long Island is questionable. Antropov left Saturday's game after twisting his knee. Fletcher said he might play tomorrow but "he's being reassessed (today)."

RUNNING ON EMPTY

The Leafs can only pray the two return. This team can't win without them. Either Sundin or Antropov has scored in 45 of the Leafs' games. In the 28 games that neither has scored, Toronto has lost 21.

"You take the two top forwards out of the lineup of any team and you'll notice the difference," Fletcher said. "The majority of the offence that we generate comes from that line of Sundin, Antropov and whoever is on the left side. When they're not there, we just don't get the scoring chances."

The Leafs are 29-16-7 when Sundin scores at least one point. When his name doesn't appear in the summary they have won just three times. "He's such a force," Ponikarovsky said.

Even if Sundin does return, it's questionable how effective he can be. Coach Paul Maurice has been leaning heavily on his top six forwards down the stretch. It has paid dividends with a 9-4-1 record the past 14 games. But it also takes a physical toll, particularly on a 37-year-old body playing 20-25 minutes each game. And, Saturday, the Leafs looked and reacted like a team that knows it's running on fumes.


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