Leafs need a break

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

Nothing like a cold December night with two of the NHL's bottom-feeders to punctuate the frigid reality of where this Maple Leafs' season is parked.

Yes, the master spin of low expectations is on target. The master plan? Best be patient, boys, it's only just begun.

The Leafs' 4-2 win over the New York Islanders last night was as light on entertainment as you might anticipate from a pair of teams with no realistic hope for this spring other than jockeying for a top draft pick.

Despite winning for just the fifth time in their past 17, this one was hard on the eyes. But as it has been most successful nights, hard work -- the Leafs' only real currency thus far -- paid off in a win.

"I have no quarrel with the compete level," Leafs president Brian Burke said after his first week on the job.

Left unsaid -- and if you've watched through the early highs and lows you've seen it -- is the lack of talent.

Generally, the results have been what you would expect from a team which has depth only in young faces anxious to impress the ever-expanding roster of bosses and hope that they will be among the handful on the current roster still around when the team becomes a contender.

An 4-3-3 October didn't exactly have sane folks talking playoffs, but it did suggest the bottom of the well wasn't so deep.

After an impressive win against the Rangers on Nov. 1, however, the tumble towards naked reality has been revealing. The Leafs skidded through November with a 4-6-3 record and in December are 2-3, thanks in part to the lame visitors last night.

To merely be competitive, the Leafs have had to burn so much energy that when they hit the current stretch of five games in eight nights across three time zones, you got a team that still works hard, but is starting to wear down.

Thus, the sleepy crowd of 19,309 at the Air Canada Centre last night missed out on two of the major sources of entertainment thus far -- rookie defenceman Luke Schenn, who underwent an MRI yesterday to evaluate his knee injury, and exciting forward Nik Hagman, who was shaking off cobwebs from a concussion.

That weariness will start to show itself in different ways. After not being outshot by an opponent for a franchise-record 17-game stretch, the Leafs ended up on the short end for five of their previous six prior to last night, when they had a 37-28 edge on the Isles.

"All that travel is tough, but we're professionals and should be used to it," Leafs defenceman Jeff Finger said. "But when we got worn down, we got away from our game a little."

Though they got it back enough to get a win last night, the Leafs continue to do things that will drive head coach Ron Wilson crazy. After a nice finish by Nikolai Kulemin to open the scoring, Toronto held the lead for all of 12 seconds. And as encouraging as their work ethic has been, the Leafs have been outscored a baffling 36-18 in the first period and opponents have scored on the first official shot on net in four of the past five games.

With just one game in the next seven days, at least they can catch their breath, starting with an off day today. Throw in some real practice time and Wilson will get a chance to ensure that moving forward, his team resembles more the one in October than in recent weeks.

"With some time off, (a win) like this gives us some confidence," Leafs centre Dominic Moore said. "When you have young players, that's what you need."


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