In need of a home stand

Leafs' Luke Schenn watches as Matt Stajan squirts water at a passing teammate during yesterday's...

Leafs' Luke Schenn watches as Matt Stajan squirts water at a passing teammate during yesterday's skills competition at the Air Canada Centre. (Sun Media/Dave Abel)

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

The next addition to the Maple Leafs' hockey office should be Mike Holmes of Holmes On Homes TV fame.

Is there a team in the NHL that realizes poorer value from its sprawling property, a world-class arena and a loyal fan base? Another autumn of big talk about turning the Air Canada Centre into a house of pain has evaporated into a two-month home record of 2-7-3, with an average of fewer than two goals a game.

This season could mark Toronto's fifth consecutive decline in home wins -- from 26 in the first post-lockout season down to 16 last season. It must win at least 15 of its remaining 29 at the ACC just to beat its '08-09 mark.

Tonight begins a stretch of five out of six games on home ice and eight of 11 through to Boxing Day.

Five of those are weeknight contests, when the Leafs have yet to triumph. The sight of about 9,000 fans coming out to watch a 29th-place team's skills competition yesterday was more pause for thought for players as to why they can't plug into the local generator as can so many other clubs.

The Phoenix Coyotes, the subjects of so much smug derision in these parts during the summer, still care enough about their dwindling fan base to rack up 10 wins at Jobing.com Arena.

"I can't really explain," defenceman Ian White said. "I'm not sure if it's jitters or what. We seem to tense up a little bit.

"Personally, I love playing here. It's your building, so everything is natural to me. The drive to the rink is the same, you know where you're going to eat pre-game and you spend (quality) time at home. I'm not sure why we struggle as we do."

Despite strength in numbers, Toronto fans tend to do one of two things at a home game: Sit on their hands unless prodded by the scoreboard, or tarry at the sushi bar before each period, leading to empty lower-bowl seats and a lack of electricity when the puck drops. If the Leafs don't strike first in a game, it seems the fans expect something to go wrong. And when crowd factions unite, it's usually to mock a beleaguered Leafs goalie or hoot at a slumping player.

"What are you going to do?" White said. "They're going to be the way they are. So, enjoy it, whether they're cheering or jeering. Just be happy that we're playing in the biggest hockey market on the planet, going out in front of 19,500 every night. I look at that as a positive and it helps me.

"Leaf Nation is pretty faithful. Almost every road trip we go on, there are a couple of hundred, if not a few thousand, fans. It's a very encouraging feeling."

Three years of failing to win the love of the T.O. crowd with his low goal output has not soured winger Jason Blake.

"We have great fans, a great building, great atmosphere, but we have to make it a tough place for opponents," Blake said. "I don't think it's because we're not ready to play, we just have to find a way to get our intensity level up.

"When teams come in here, it's Toronto and they want to play their best hockey. More teams than not come in here with a few guys from Ontario and they get all revved up and ready to go. We have to be ready to match that and find success here, one way or another."

COMFORTABLE

The homestand unfolds tonight with the Atlanta Thrashers, who just happen to be the conference's fourth- best road team. A three-game trip ended with a flat 7-2 loss in Boston on Saturday, where Phil Kessel admitted nerves got the better of him in his return. The Leafs can only hope Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina get a case of the yips as well when they step back on to ACC ice this evening.

"It's crucial," White said of this month. "We're fighting for our lives, pretty much from two weeks ago until right up to the end (of the schedule). It doesn't matter if we're home or away, we definitely have to make up some ground here."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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