Third and long gone

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

In order to have any success this season, the Maple Leafs need to find a way to score goals on a consistent basis, need their goaltenders to stand on their heads more often than not, and need to stay relatively healthy.

But perhaps more than anything else, this team needs to spend some time on a big, long couch, talking to a therapist.

Last year, the Leafs folded far too many times in the third period.

And despite the vow by new head coach Ron Wilson that collapse-jobs will not be tolerated this season, the Leafs continue to do just that.

Last night, the seemingly mentally-deficient Leafs seemed to be cruising to victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets when the roofed caved in yet again.

With the two sides playing four-on-four, Jakub Voracek and Jason Chimera scored in the final three minutes of the game to erase a 4-2 Toronto lead and send the final pre-season game of the season into overtime. The extra five-minute frame solved nothing, but the Blue Jackets, who did not dress star forward Rick Nash, won in a shootout when Nikita Filatov beat Vesa Toskala on a high shot to the glove side.

The pre-season is only the pre-season, but Wilson clearly was frustrated with his team blowing yet another late lead, and vowed that, prior to Thursday's regular-season opener in Detroit against the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings, he will figure out why this team constantly coughs up leads. Wilson acknowledged that a lot of it is mental breakdowns, but also the result of making dumb plays at the wrong times.

"You stay between your man and the puck. You don't play pucks into the middle, you don't make what I would consider a risky play, and that's what we'll spend (tomorrow) and Wednesday working on," Wilson said following the 5-4 loss. "I don't know what you would call it, but you have to hammer it home, and we have to practise that until it becomes a habit."

Wilson suggested heading into the pre-season that a lack of leadership resulted in the Leafs losing an alarming number of games in the third period last season.

This year, with a number of veterans from last season gone, including Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe, the problems in the third period likely are more the result of inexperience.

In any event, Wilson is determined to purge his club of its tendency to collapse. The coach also suggested that fatigue was a factor in the Leafs giving up two late goals. Last night's game in front of an announced crowd of 18,455 at the Air Canada Centre, was Toronto's third in a row and fourth in the past five days.

"What do you think?" snapped Wilson, when asked if his team was tired. "I'm exhausted. So, I know our team's tired."

The players will have today off to rest and will practise tomorrow and Wednesday before opening the season on Thursday.

The Blue Jackets jumped ahead 1-0 on a goal by Filatov after Toronto defenceman Jonas Frogren was unable to handle an iffy cross-ice pass from blue-line mate Anton Stralman. Defenceman Mike Van Ryan scored his first of the pre-season on a rebound to tie it at 1-1, after Jason Blake charged to the net with the puck.

BLAKE HAMMERED

Blake was hammered in the first period by Columbus defenceman Ole-Kristian Tollefesen, resulting in a couple of minor tussles -- the third time the diminutive Leafs forward has been hit hard in the past three games.

Alexandre Picard put the Blue Jackets ahead 2-1 early in the second with a rebound in front of the net, but rookie forward Mikhail Grabovski scored his fifth of the pre-season, finishing off a pretty tick-tack-toe series of passes from Niklas Hagman and Jiri Tlusty, to tie the score late in the second. Grabovski finished the game with three points.

Stralman gave the Leafs their first lead of the game on a shot from the point, but much of the credit had to go to Hagman, who not only screened Columbus goaltender Fredrick Norrena, but drew the penalty (Mike Commodore) earlier to put the Leafs on the power play.

Blake had a chance to win it in the final minute when he jumped out of the penalty box and was sent in alone on new goaltender Daniel LaCosta, but was unable to score.

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REPLAY

GETTING HEALTHY

Veteran forward Dominic Moore, who has three points in two pre-season games, has missed most of the exhibition schedule with a sore groin, is expected to play in the club's opener on Thursday in Detroit against the Red Wings. Defenceman Jeff Finger (bruised foot) will be out for at least the first week of the regular season. Defenceman Pavel Kubina (sore knee) is expected for Thursday's opener. Rookie forward Nikolai Kulemin (sore knee) should back on Saturday for the home opener against the Montreal Canadiens.

FAN ZONE

GM Cliff Fletcher, head coach Ron Wilson, Moore and the Marlies' Max Taylor will be on hand today at noon outside of the Air Canada Centre's West Plaza to unveil the Leafs Nation Mobile Fan Zone.

HERE AND THERE

Defenceman Ian White played his third straight game at right wing last night, starting on a line with Alex Steen at centre and rookie John Mitchell at left ... Fletcher yesterday called newcomer Niklas Hagman the club's best player during the pre-season. Hagman has six points in as many pre-season games and also excelled in his own end.

POINT-GETTERS

Toronto G A P

Mikhail Grabovski 1 2 3

Mike Van Ryn 1 1 2

Anton Stralman 1 0 1

Alexi Ponikarovsky 1 0 1

Jason Blake 0 1 1

Nik Antropov 0 1 1

Niklas Hagman 0 1 1

Jiri Tlusty 0 1 1

Columbus

Jakub Voracek 1 1 2

Rostislav Klesla 0 2 2

Nikita Filatov 1 0 1

Alexandre Picard 1 0 1

Jason Chimera 1 0 1

Mike Commodore 0 1 1

Marc Methot 0 1 1

Jiri Novotny 0 1 1

Manny Malhotra 0 1 1

NEXT UP

Thursday in Detroit, 8 p.m., CBC/AM 640


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