Leafs try to get traffic

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:10 PM ET

TORONTO -- Time for the Maple Leafs to step up to what Ron Wilson calls home plate and "play tall."

Glitches in goaltending and defence are just part of the reason the cellar-dwelling Leafs are searching for their first win tonight in Manhattan.

Billed as bigger and better, Toronto is neither driving the opposition net nor getting enough pucks to feed the beast in the slot. That is evidenced by its shots on goal (46-31-27-20 in the four losses). Its 10 goals on 124 shots compares to 132 other attempts either blocked or missed.

Goalie Vesa Toskala was excused early from practice yesterday, while Wilson toyed with new lines designed to get his third- and fourth-line rumblers more equal footing with his smaller skill skaters.

FIRING SQUAD

The workout ended with Wilson and several forwards and defencemen lining up, firing-squad style, to blast away at an empty cage, sometimes moving bodies in the way to practise deflections.

Wilson also tipped his hat to clubs that have made their end of the rink a no-fly zone for the Leafs when they try to get pucks deep, while lamenting his forwards' lack of same.

A prime example was fourth-line centre Rickard Wallin getting the jump on the Penguins on Saturday, scoring on Niklas Hagman's rebound. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh was up by three at the time.

"We need more of (Wallin's effort), driving the net and shooting before people actually get in those lanes," Wilson said.

The coach doesn't have all the ideal forwards to make it work, including mid-sized Russians Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, diminutive Jason Blake and the uber-soft Matt Stajan. Wilson bristled at the suggestion his Europeans aren't suited for dirty work around the net.

"They have to, if they want to score here," he said. "That's the adjustment they have to make. There are plenty of Europeans who do this for a living. The guys in Detroit are great at it and there are plenty around the league.

"It's a not a European thing. We have North Americans who aren't going to the front of the net, either."

After leading the Leafs with 302 shots last year and scoring 25 goals, Blake was 0-for-3 and a minus-2 against the Pens and has just 10 shots and one assist this season.

At least the topic gave Wilson something else to discuss yesterday, after daily updates on Toskala's mental state.

"Vesa is starting (tonight) and that's where it ends," Wilson said, refusing to confirm Joey MacDonald will face the Avalanche tomorrow. "I'm honest-to-God sick and tired (of the Toskala bashing). If one goes in, it's all about Vesa. It's not, it's about the Toronto Maple Leafs."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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