Leafs in giving mood

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:06 AM ET

After spending the previous two weeks in a mad Christmas shopping rush around the NHL for points, the Maple Leafs tried to mail one in from home .

Bad mistake, with the well-rested Dallas Stars intercepting delivery and putting seven pucks past Vesa Toskala in an 8-2 win.

"We didn't have our legs, we didn't have our minds," coach Ron Wilson said of his team. "Unfortunately, it got pretty ugly, but we're pleased at where we're at right now. We're .500 at Christmas time (14-14-6) and there's not a soul around who ever would have thought that.

"There's no reason to over-react or second guess. You could see this coming."

Wilson was referring to the Leafs arriving at 1 a.m. from a 6-2 win in Atlanta where Justin Pogge won his first NHL game. But with Toskala sent home a day early to rest a sore groin and given the morning to test it on the ice, the decision was made to use him, retain Curtis Joseph as the backup and keep Pogge around until the weekend when the NHL holiday roster freeze ends.

Toskala needed some of those 18 goals the Leafs were stuffing in the previous three games and certainly some better team defence as the team gave up four on 11 first-period shots. At least three originated from no one clearing rebounds, while Fabian Brunnstrom made Jeff Finger look like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, sweeping around him on a rush.

Whitby's James Neal had his first NHL hat trick, the last against Joseph late in the game, while Regent Park's Trevor Daley was third star.

Thus ends a nice little run of five wins in six games that triggered a playoff heartbeat.

"We know what we're up against, pretty much the same as the past three (non-playoff) years)," winger Alexei Ponikarovsky said. "Everyone is so close in the standings. There is a half a season left to focus on."

With an irritated crowd and Seven Nation Army playing on the speakers, Wilson finally pulled Toskala after the seventh goal on the 27th shot in the second period. Joseph made an early save, Jason Blake and Mikhail Grabovski broke Marty Turco's shutout and Joseph gave up only the late Neal goal on 10 shots. Perhaps Pogge's arrival, brief as it is, has jolted him.

"If you feel good physically and you want to play another year, you have to find a way," Joseph said.

The Leafs allowed a home season-high four goals in the first period, with just one shot credited to them for much of that opening 20 minutes.

"It's easy to point fingers in this dressing room, but we aren't going to," veteran Tomas Kaberle said.

The Stars, with two full days of practice to get ready after losing in overtime in Ottawa, are 8-4-1 in their past 13.

They have a long way to go to regain contender status, but they're certainly enjoying themselves after the Sean Avery cloud was blown away earlier this month. Lesser lights such as Neal, Krystofer Barch and Steve Ott were joined by leading scorer Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro and rookie Brunnstrom in the goal parade.

"A lot of little parts of our game have to improve," coach Dave Tippett said before the game. "We want to continue working on our defensive game. Giving up five is very uncharacteristic of us.

"Our goaltending needs to be better and our team game in front of him has to be better. The good thing is, we're finding a way to get some points."

Richards said it would be unfair to lay all the team's woes at Avery's feet.

"Our top players didn't start the season the way we would've liked," he said. "It's not just distractions (in the room), a lot of this is brought in from the outside from people wondering why we didn't get off to a good start. We just didn't win. If Marty was on his game, then we didn't (score for him). Our own zone play and our penalty killing was pretty bad at the start of the year. It was a little hairy there for awhile."


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