Leafs running on fumes

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

The coming summer will be long enough with jokes about the Maple Leafs missing the playoffs again.

But while they still have a say in these final 14 games of the season, the players don't want to branded as quitters or pitied for their long injury list.

So the double doors to the dressing room were slammed shut an extra 15 minutes after last night's 4-1 loss to the Tampa Lightning, as the players exhorted each other not to finish 2008-09 with a whimper.

"We have to look at this as a challenge that separates the men from the boys," winger Jason Blake said. "It's a tough time of the year to play, because you're not in the playoffs. You have to be a pro about it, go out and work hard.

"I know it's not the most fun time of year, but you still have to show up. That separates winners from losers."

The game ended with coach Ron Wilson getting tossed for arguing with the officials about uncalled stick work in the final minute, two days after he lit into a radio reporter for questioning his desire to win.

The Leafs had a 1-0 lead after a period and for awhile, looked as if they would be in their 11th one-goal game in the past 12 outings. But three wasted power plays and a crack in their own penalty killing after an impressive 18-for-18 stretch over two games haunted them at the end.

The Leafs gave up five breakaways on Martin Gerber, two of them cashed for goals. Matt Pettinger answered an early Lee Stempniak goal, just getting it through Gerber's pads after the goalie used similar tactics when Martin St. Louis swept in alone.

The latter finally scored late in the second with No. 1 draft pick Steven Stamkos delighting the Markham faithful at the ACC with a cross-slot feed. Ryan Malone broke the penalty killing streak of the Leafs and Brantford's Paul Szczechura had another breakaway goal.

"We're known for that," Wilson said of giving up so many golden chances. "We were just sloppy at the offensive blue line a couple of times. We had possession, we were cycling and the defence just lost (track) where dangerous guys were.

"They're not that much different than us (at the bottom of the standings), they have nothing to lose and they eventually scored on one."

A great 55-second shift by Mikhail Grabovski's line that failed to produce a goal was one of several extended attacks at power play and even strength that didn't pay off for the Leafs. Alexei Ponikarovsky and John Mitchell both flubbed big chances with the score close.

Toronto showed the strain of having to use inexperienced defencemen such as Anton Stralman and Phil Oreskovic, while Luke Schenn looked a little tired on some plays as well. But teammate Ian White said the post-game pump-up served its purpose.

"We have to stay together as a group here, hold each other accountable," White said. "We can't accept losses even at this time of the season. We have to build as a group, get stronger and understand what it takes to win and what it takes to play for the Maple Leafs.

Toronto's injury situation has stabilized at least to where the club has made no changes the past three games, other than flip Gerber and Curtis Joseph in goal. But it is without Tomas Kaberle, Mike Van Ryn and Jonas Frogren, turning to Oreskovic and Stralman the past few games and piling the minutes on rookie Schenn.

"It doesn't matter who is in the lineup, guys have to put 100% effort in every night," White said. "For the most part, we've been playing very hard hockey."

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REPLAY

HELLO, GARY

Ex-Leaf Gary Roberts, who announced his retirement from the Lightning and the NHL this week, watched from the press box.

He is doing some work for the Bolts and will be moving back to the Whitby area later in the year, but is not sure what his next job might be.

TRADE FALLOUT

The Leafs picked up three players in a deadline deal with Tampa a week ago, but the defenceman Toronto gave up who was the only one in last night's game.

Defenceman Richard Petiot was recalled on emergency conditions a few days ago, while goalie Olaf Kolzig and defenceman Jamie Heward are hurt and Andy Rogers replaced Petiot on the Marlies roster.

POINT-GETTERS

Toronto G A P

Lee Stempniak 1 0 1

Jason Blake 0 1 1

Luke Schenn 0 1 1

Tampa

Ryan Malone 1 1 2

Matt Pettinger 1 0 1

Paul Szczechura 1 0 1

Martin St. Louis 1 0 1

Martins Karsums 0 1 1

Steven Stamkos 0 1 1

Cory Murphy 0 1 1

Vincent Lecavalier 0 1 1

NEXT UP

Tomorrow -- 7 p.m.; Maple Leafs vs. Calgary Flames; CBC, AM 640


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