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 team is last in the NHL, searching for its 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 -- while its 10 goals on 124 shots compares to 132 other attempts either blocked or missed.
Thus, netminder 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.
The workout ended with Wilson and several forwards and defence 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.
Yet, the coach doesn't have all the ideal forwards to make it work, including two average sized Russians in Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, diminutive Jason Blake and the talented, but not overly physical 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."
Even when you combine hits by forwards and defence, the Leafs are minus-18 and out-hit a foe for the first time on Saturday.
In another eye-opener for the team's alleged elite, Jamal Mayers, Jay Rosehill and Wallin teamed up for a goal on the Pens -- Rosehill's first after a career spent slugging through the minors. Mayers started the game with Blake and John Mitchell, the idea being the two grinders would free some room for Blake to shoot more. 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.
"Everyone has to chip in, because every team in the league has guys on the third and fourth line that contribute," Mayers said. "We have to get back to the forecheck and creating some havoc."
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 to face the Avalanche here 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."
BEHIND THE LEAFS' OFFENSIVE WOES
Leaf shots-goals 124-10
Leaf shots missed 63
Leaf shots blocked 69
Blocked by Leafs 52
Leafs-opp. hits 103-121