Fear factor

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:36 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- Cliff Fletcher remembers bringing visiting teams into the old Philly Spectrum and seeing his players cringe at having to leave the dressing room to knock heads with the Broad Street Bullies.

Ron Wilson said that just the thought of playing those bad-boy Flyers in the 1970s added to the intimidation factor provided by some of the toughest fans in pro sports.

Perhaps it was fitting then, that a Maple Leafs team in need of some passion and intensity practised at the aging Spectrum yesterday in advance of tonight's game at the Wachovia Center, the modern-day home of the Flyers just across the parking lot.

It's no secret the Leafs have been lacking in toughness many nights this season. And, lately, the talent level has plunged with it as the team heads into the second half of a season rapidly lowering towards expectations.

Midway through the 82-game schedule, the Leafs have a record of 16-19-6 for 38 points. Merely matching that in the second half would leave them with 76, seven fewer than last season and their lowest point total since 1997-98.

For those clinging to dreams of junior star John Tavares come NHL entry draft day in June, take heart in the fact that only two teams had fewer than 76 points last season.

"We can play better than we have been playing recently," said Fletcher, who, as general manager, hired Wilson as coach and began the rebuilding process before handing the reins to Brian Burke in November.

"We're looking for improvement. We have a number of players right now who aren't playing very well."

While Wilson was encouraged with some of the feistiness shown by his team in the penalty-filled 6-2 loss to the Canadiens in Montreal, the coach laughed off suggestions that the scraps should have been enough to boost the team to victory.

"You are only as good as the people who are on the ice," Wilson said of his team, which has now dropped six of its past eight contests. "You get involved in a couple of scuffles doesn't mean you are suddenly going to score five goals.

"We want our team to show a little more passion than we have recently. We certainly don't want our younger, skilled people having any thoughts of fear in their minds. That's what we need, some of those guys to play in a fear-free environment. That's how you develop."

It's not about to get any easier, however, as the Leafs begin to suffer the wear and tear of the long NHL season.

Defencemen Jeff Finger is expected to be out tonight with what Wilson called an upper body injury, and fellow blue-liner Mike Van Ryn is nowhere near ready to return from a concussion, despite his participation in practice yesterday.

On top of that, points won't come any easier from here on in, especially against teams jockeying for playoff position.

"The later you get into the season, the more the top teams in the league gear up," Fletcher said. "The games become more critical. We have to answer the bell, take the challenge and improve.


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