Worst yet to come for Leafs

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

If there is indeed a bottom to the murky waters that the Maple Leafs are plunging in this season, it doesn't sound like we've seen it.

Defensive lapses (again) and a goofy shootout goal last night at the Air Canada Centre were just the latest mishaps to take them down in a 4-3 loss to the surging Columbus Blue Jackets.

The rebuilding Leafs may be on course for their poorest season in more than a decade but the worst, apparently, is yet to come.

"We are going to be going through, I promise you, some rougher times than we are going through right now," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, whose team fell to 21-26-11 and is on pace to record its lowest point total since the 69 compiled in 1997-98.

"We have to be prepared for that."

Most frustrating is that even on decent efforts such as last night's, the Leafs find frustrating ways to lose.

The Jackets took the shootout 2-1 on a stellar winner by Rick Nash and a bizarre effort by Jason Williams, who appeared to fan on his shot but says the play, which saw the puck slip between the pads of goalie Justin Pogge, was by design.

"I learned it when I was 13 or 14 working in hockey camps," said Williams, a 29-year-old London, Ont. native. "When I came down, I saw (Pogge) challenging me. I knew couldn't shoot, so I thought this would probably be a good time to do it."

Real or not, the move forced out a collective groan from the crowd of 19,179.

Though Pogge was unable to make the difference -- he was 0 for 2 in the shootout and saw his NHL record slide further to 1-4 -- the Leafs problems ran much deeper.

Perhaps worst was giving up a goal with less than a second left in the opening period to erase a 1-0 lead after defenceman Luke Schenn got caught and Nash connected on a 2-on-1.

Or another early in the third when the Leafs failed to clear the zone, eventually leading to a Kristian Huselius goal.

"They're simple mistakes but they cost us," Leafs forward Matt Stajan said.

The loss spoiled a strong night by Leafs forward Nik Antropov, who scored his 19th and 20th goals, continueing his recent hot play. Jamal Mayers, with his third of the season, scored Toronto's other goal.

Fortuitously for Antropov and perhaps Leafs general manager Brian Burke, the effort came against a team that reportedly has been scouting him in advance of the March 4 trade deadline.

"I just have to go out and play and whatever happens, happens," said Antropov, who is on pace to top the career-high 27 goals of a year ago.

Pogge, who will return to the Marlies today, remains a work in progress, in sharp contrast to Jackets goaltender Steve Mason, another rookie and leading candidate for the Calder Trophy.

"I don't think (Pogge) let in any bad goals," Wilson said. "This is all about being mentally and emotionally ready to play in a very difficult market. We don't want to rush it.

"We're not going to expose a young goalie to a slaughter every night."


Photos