Leafs know Oilers' hungry feeling

ROB LONGLEY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

EDMONTON -- Most winters, it has been easy for Oilers fans to ignore the noisy Maple Leafs supporters who show up at Rexall Place when Toronto is in town.

Tonight, it might not so simple.

Unlike the past, when high-flying editions of the Oilers often would skate circles around the Leafs, the home team is the one on the bottom looking up.

With seven consecutive losses, first-year Oilers coach Pat Quinn never had it so bad with the Leafs as his current team is taking up permanent residence in the Western Conference basement.

As tempting as the prospects of an easy win might be, however, the Leafs seem to recognize that any lapse could easily erase the good feelings of Sunday's 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the team's best efforts of the season.

"When you are struggling like that, you work harder," Leafs defenceman Francois Beauchemin said of the Oilers. "Sometimes it's harder to play a team that has lost 10 in a row than a team that has won seven in a row.

"They will be desperate to get a win."

The Leafs know the feeling all too well as they still reside on the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff race, despite a December that could yield a ninth win with a successful effort tonight. The team will reach the midway point of their season, striving to reach 39 points, one more than following the 41st game a year ago.

But recognizing that his lineup is an ongoing work in progress that must continue to improve if it is to be a serious contender for a playoff spot, Leafs coach Ron Wilson has been juggling his lines.

Most notably, centre Mikhail Grabovski has fallen to the fourth unit between muckers Colton Orr and Jamal Mayers.

Wayne Primeau, meanwhile, is on the de facto second line with Jason Blake and Lee Stempniak, a trio that produced two big goals against the Penguins.

"We're trying to avoid turnovers in the neutral zone and (Grabovski) has been making too many," Wilson said following a lengthy practice yesterday at Rexall Place. "The only way I can eradicate 'turnover-itus' is to take away ice time until you actually figure it out."

The Leafs could use some production from the top unit as Matt Stajan, Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin have been held in check recently. Kessel has gone six games without a point, the longest streak since 2006-07, his rookie season.

"Every goal-scorer in this league has times when he doesn't score for stretches of games," Wilson said. "Nobody's getting (Phil) the puck much, either. You need people on your line to carry some of the burden sometimes.

"It will come, I'm not worried about that."

Whether it's Gretzky and Messier or the far less renowned current edition of Oilers, the atmosphere always is lively here when the Leafs are the visitors. Tonight's contest then, should be a nice cap on a big day for Canadian hockey following the announcement of the Olympic roster at noon.

"We know it's going to be a great atmosphere," Stajan said. "It's fun playing in Canadian games, especially in a building like this where the best player played the game and there are always a lot of our fans."

The Oilers roster may be a shadow of what it was in those glory days Stajan alluded to and the franchise seems to be in a heap of trouble. But if the Leafs were anticipating an easy ride tonight, they need only to recall their own tough start to the season.

"They are in the same boat (as we were)," Leafs' Mike Komisarek said. "You don't want in a month or two to have your playoff chances go from slim to none."

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


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