Leafs need wakeup call

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson joked early in the season that he was going to put a pot of coffee in the dressing room before games in an attempt to prevent his charges from sleepwalking in the first period, which they tend to do with alarming regularity.

Perhaps he should consider purchasing an electrical shock machine.

The Leafs have now been outscored in first periods 51-27, after falling behind 2-0 to the Florida Panthers last night at the Air Canada Centre -- the 16th time this season the Blue and White have dug themselves into a 2-0 hole.

Toronto eventually fell behind 3-0 en route to a 4-2 loss, and a 16-18-6 record. The Panthers improved to 18-16-6.

There obviously is some sort of first period mental block plaguing this team, and Wilson has to figure out what it is.

"We didn't show up for most of the game," Wilson said. "I was not very happy with the effort.

"We had zero energy at all from any veteran player. It was a quiet room before the game, it was quiet on the bench. The only time anybody said anything was to yell at the referee when he missed a chintzy penalty. We have to find a way to get a little more passion or energy."

Not even the chorus of boos raining down on prodigal son Bryan McCabe early in the game could snap the Leafs out of their doldrums.

You can't blame youth. As Wilson pointed out following the morning skate that, despite repeated suggestions to the contrary, the Leafs aren't really a young team. In fact, with an median age of 28.1, there are 13 younger teams in the league.

"We don't have a take-charge type of player on our team right now and it shows in the first period," Wilson said of his team's first period woes. "The easiest time to play in basketball is when you're trailing by 30 points and hockey when you're trailing by three or four -- the other team takes their foot of the gas. But we have to find a way to manufacture in our minds that we're trailing when the first period starts."

The low-energy loss, in which the Leafs were outshot 26-15 after two periods, also continued the trend of a poor outing following a good one.

"We have to make sure we're ready to play," said Leafs forward Jason Blake, who scored Toronto's second goal of the game, the club's first short-handed marker of the season. "This is a team that's in front of us in the standings and we needed a big effort if we wanted to move forward. And they just outskated us."

As for McCabe, the St. Catharines native returned to the ACC for the first time since being traded to the Panthers on Sept.2, 2008, for defenceman Mike Van Ryn and promptly assisted on Florida's first goal by Stephen Weiss at 10:16 of the first period, though he was booed everytime he touched the puck.

"There were a few butterflies. It was a little weird being on the other side," said McCabe, who was asked if he felt like Vince Carter out there.

"He gets it worse than I do," McCabe said.

McCabe had only five goals in 54 games (with 18 assists) for the Leafs last year and his inconsistent play quickly turned him into a pariah here. He already has seven goals and 12 assists in 30 games this season and is a plus eight, tied for No.2 on the Florida team.

Ville Peltonen, Michael Frolik and Gregory Campbell also scored for Florida. Alexei Ponikarovsky scored the other for Toronto. Blake's goal, bringing Toronto to within two with just seven minutes remaining in the game, brought the crowd to its feet, as he shovelled in his own rebound following a break-away with McCabe in pursuit.


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