Steep learning curve for Leafs

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

ST. LOUIS -- If the Maple Leafs' painful learning curve means getting waxed 7-3 by the rebuilding St. Louis Blues, the next two tutorials are going to require Motown morphine.

Coach Ron Wilson faces another day of drilling some basics into his team, particularly in defensive coverage, as he tries to stave off the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in back-to-back games starting tomorrow. The Wings have lost just one of six NHL exhibition games and given up just 11 goals, while the Leafs have one regulation win in six starts and gave up 10 to the Blues in the past two games.

It's best that the Leafs absorb the hurt now and whittle down the lineup to those best prepared to handle an 82-game regular season. But while Wilson made it clear he's prepared to be patient, he won't tolerate some of the floating that went on last night.

"We got to a point where a lot of guys have take stock of their passiveness," a concerned Wilson said. "Important people are (missing or injured) and it's the responsibility of others to pick it up."

The Leafs left four defencemen at home, while winger Jiri Tlusty survived an Alex Steen shot that struck the edge of his visor and just missed re-arranging his dental work.

LITTLE HELP FOR JOSEPH

Curtis Joseph was beaten on the first two shots, but as was the case in his first action against Buffalo 10 days ago, his team played awful in front of him. The Leafs were flagged for a delayed penalty off the opening draw while the ineffective pairing of Jonas Frogren and Anton Stralman got crossed up, allowing Yan Stastny a breakaway goal at the 11-second mark.

"A few guys were not ready to play, they made simple elementary mistakes and it snowballed," Wilson said.

The Leafs were down 5-1 after one period and Wilson mercifully lifted the 41-year-old Joseph in the second after six goals on 12 shots and a goals-against average approaching 10.00 after less than three periods.

"I was rusty," Joseph admitted, but promised better things when he backs up Vesa Toskala in regular-season play.

The Leafs gave minor league defenceman Richard Petiot a shot last night, much to the delight of Blues' coach Andy Murray, who recalled the Albertan from his days in the Kings' system when Murray worked L.A's bench.

"I wish we'd signed him," Murray said in the morning, but he may have wanted to retract that after Petiot was beaten cleanly on two rushes that led to easy goals.

Winger Ryan Hollweg tried to ignite the Leafs with two fights and 19 penalty minutes, but was also stripped of the puck in front of Joseph on one goal.

"He'll have to tone it down a bit," Wilson said of Hollweg trying too hard to light a fire some nights.

MITCHELL SHINES

One of Joseph's few allies on defence was Luke Schenn, 23 years his junior, but even the teenager lost track of his man when Andy McDonald slid one through the wickets from a tight angle.

Perhaps the best Leaf was John Mitchell, showing more of his versatility when moved from centre to right and left wing last night, banging his way to two assists on goals by Mikhail Grabovski and Niklas Hagman. He stood up big Alex Pietrangelo on one goal.

"I did feel comfortable on the wing and it's nice that the coach has been saying some good things about me," said Mitchell, primarily a centre the past couple of years with the Marlies. "If he keeps me (the Leafs could lose Mitchell on waivers if he's demoted again), I think I can do the job."

The Leafs continue to see if Alex Steen can make the switch to the middle, while Matt Stajan won seven of his first eight draws as he tries to show Wilson what he can do.

Stralman beat Blues' goalie Chris Mason in the second period with a harmless looking wrist shot.

That came after Tlusty was wounded when Steen belted a bouncing puck that got under the Czech's visor. He returned in the third period.

Joseph was pulled after Lee Stempniak's second of the night opened the middle frame, but Justin Pogge was able to survive the same lack of support until David Perron scored late in the game. Stempniak had three points and McDonald had a goal and two assists for the Blues.

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REPLAY

TURNING POINT

From the opening faceoff, the Leafs were asleep at the switch and the Blues struck 11 seconds into the game.

MR. SENTIMENTAL

Much to the delight of the Blues' fans -- those few who tore themselves away from the baseball playoffs to show up -- coach Ron Wilson started ex-Blue Curtis Joseph in goal and winger Jamal Mayers for the opening faceoff. Joseph was beaten on the first two shots.

GIVING UP POWER

With a chance to get back into the game at the six-minute mark with the Blues up by two and assessed two seperate minors, Wilson opted for four minutes of 5-on-4 play, rather than get a 5-on-3 for two minutes. It gave him a chance to see different power play combos, but none clicked.

MARLIE MOVEMENT

The Marlies released three players from tryouts yesterday, forwards Mark O'Leary, Shawn Snider and Brian Ihnacak, the son of Leafs scout and ex-player Peter Ihnacak. They also loaned goalie Michael Ouzas to their ECHL affiliate, the Reading Royals.


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