Southern discomfort for Leafs

The Hurricanes' Tuomo Ruutu gets the game-deciding goal against Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson...

The Hurricanes' Tuomo Ruutu gets the game-deciding goal against Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson in the shootout last night in Raleigh. (ELLEN OZIER/Reuters)

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:33 AM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. -- A season that is going south hit a low point down in Dixie last night with a 6-5 shootout loss.

The Maple Leafs hit rock-bottom 30th place at the same time they reached the quarter pole of their NHL schedule, with a gut-wrenching defeat that saw 3-0, 4-2 and 5-4 leads all get away to the Carolina Hurricanes, who passed the Leafs by a point.

"Obviously, what we're doing in here isn't working," said Ian White, who thought he'd won it with 29.9 seconds left in regulation. "We'll see what kind of character we have in here now."

But there might be fewer characters as soon as today if general manager Brian Burke follows through on threats to stick one or two unproductive Leafs with the AHL Marlies, regardless of their one-way contracts. If playoffs are a pipe dream, Burke has said he might as well play the kids from the Marlies.

"I'll let the powers that be answer that one," White said.

Coach Ron Wilson, who was looking all night at a rink billboard for a local heartburn clinic, probably felt like checking in after Erik Cole's goal with three seconds to go in regulation with Manny Legace pulled.

Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen easily beat Jonas Gustavsson in the shootout, but with 40 saves, the rookie Swede deserved better. It was the Leafs' 50th one-goal loss the past three seasons.

"We had opportunities on the power play to make it 4-0," Wilson said in a brief post-game press conference. "We were very casual and we (paid for it).

"All that stuff (the season-high three goals in the first) is irrelevant if we don't keep working. We need more commitment from a few people who are feeling sorry for themselves (because, Wilson said, he had cut their ice time slightly)."

Asked about roster changes with Burke not on the trip to answer questions, Wilson said: "I don't know".

There might even be one switch before tomorrow's home game against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, not exactly pushovers after they put six past the Leafs in a game last month.

From a team that couldn't score first-period goals, the Leafs popped three in the opening frame, which was remarkable for a couple of reasons: It was just the third time the Leafs had opened the scoring this year, and it was done with eight Leafs not named Phil Kessel or Tomas Kaberle involved. Toronto was minus-44 in first-period scoring differential since the start of the Wilson regime.

Joe Corvo was stripped by Alexei Ponikarovsky, leaving Matt Stajan open for his fifth of the year and first at even-strength. Lee Stempniak buried his fifth and Mikhail Grabovski his fourth, but then the Leafs went on cruise control.

At 3-2, Toronto regained momentum on a Ponikarovsky goal, only to lose it on two Tim Gleason scores, the second at the end of a double minor to White, erroneously called for clipping a 'Cane with his stick when teammate Stephane Yelle was the culprit.

White made it 5-4 but, with Legace on the bench, Ruutu's point shot struck Toronto defender Francois Beauchemin in a crease scrum and went right to Cole for his second of the year.

"I'm at a loss for words," Stajan said. "We shouldn't lose a 3-0 lead, let alone one with 30 seconds to go. You can't make excuses. You have to close out those games."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA,CA


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