Leafs fight to the finish

TERRY KOSHAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

Ron Wilson certainly has no shortage of fodder to take into Maple Leafs practice this afternoon.

And the Leafs head coach didn't even have to watch film of an overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes last night to realize as much.

Defence became expendable in favour of offence before 19,266 at the Air Canada Centre, and the Leafs paid big-time, jumping feet-first into a large hole that eventually swallowed them in a 5-4 setback.

"We have to hammer (a defence-first philosophy) home," Wilson said. "We changed our focus a little bit, thought we had that in the can, and focused more on offence."

The Leafs officially lost a point when Carolina defenceman Niclas Wallin's long slapshot from the point flew past goalie Vesa Toskala at 1:52 of the extra session, but the seeds of failure were planted in the first period. That's when the Leafs fell behind 4-1 thanks to a series of gaffes by people who should know better.

An Alex Steen giveaway helped result in the first goal by Tuomo Ruutu. Dennis Seidenberg's shot from the blue line should have been stopped by Toskala. Chad LaRose made short work of Jamal Mayers and Pavel Kubina along the boards and gave Carolina a 3-0 lead at 8:53 of the opening period.

Niklas Hagman got one back for the home side, but Alexei Ponikarovsky in essence handed it back to the visitors when he had his pocket picked by Ryan Bayda, who in short order scored the Hurricanes' fourth goal.

The Leafs were valiant in a comeback, erasing the Carolina bulge fully by the 1:29 mark of the third when Mikhail Grabovski scored from the slot. But the killer in Wilson's mind was the Leafs' inability to score on a 5-on-3 power play that lasted one minute 13 seconds in the third. Had the Leafs done so, they would have gone up 5-4.

Goalie Cam Ward barely was tested, and had to make just one tough save, on a shot by Nik Antropov from the doorstep.

"We're going to have to work on this," Wilson said. "You have to surgically pick the other team apart and be patient, move the feet. That ended up really costing us, (more) than the first period. We should have won the game with the 5-on-3."

The Leafs wouldn't have been in such a desperate spot to score, though, had they not come mentally unglued in the first. Rebounding to erase a deficit is great and everything, but the idea that the hole is not created in the first place is something they want to grasp.

EXCITING HOCKEY

"In this league it's going to wear you down, having to try to come back every night," said defenceman Mike Van Ryn, who scored a goal. "You have to play desperation hockey and you have to work that much harder to try to come back. So we're just wearing ourselves out by digging these holes."

There's no doubt the Leafs have been playing exciting hockey, but they're young and prone to mistakes. Yet with that youth comes a vitality that has been missing for the past several seasons.

The speed and smarts of the line of Grabovski, Hagman and Nikolai Kulemin gave the Hurricanes headaches all night, combining for seven points. Each of the three was plus-2, the only Leafs on the right side of the plus-minus ledger.

Grabovski might require a translator every so often to get his point across verbally, but there is no mistaking the kid's hockey skills. He has four goals in the past two games.

"The line is unbelievable right now," Wilson said. "They dominated every time they were on the ice. Now we have to get the other guys going."


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