|Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson next to John Mitchell, left and Richard Wallin. (REUTERS/Andy Clark)
CALGARY -- It will be a night for fresh starts, or so the Maple Leafs are hoping anyway.
After securing just 37 points in the first half of the season -- their worst output since prior to the lockout -- the Leafs are desperate to get the New Year started on a different note when they meet the Flames tonight at the Saddledome.
Losing games like Wednesday's 3-1 defeat to an awful Edmonton Oilers team is driving coach Ron Wilson bonkers, especially when the Leafs have put together a number of strong efforts against some of the league powerhouses.
"We've got to be a lot more consistent, especially when we are playing teams in the same boat as we are," Wilson said yesterday. "We don't have any right to underestimate any foe.
"We certainly don't (do that) when we play the top teams. We play with a little bit of fear of embarrassment and we usually give our best effort."
A good place to start, would be at the start.
The Leafs have given up the first goal in 30 of their 41 contests and in almost half of those have fallen into 2-0 holes. While they have been decent at bouncing back many nights, why dig such a hole?
"It all starts between our ears," defenceman Francois Beauchemin said following yesterday's practice at the old Calgary Corral. "You've got to be ready for any game."
If the Leafs are to get a split from their two-game tour of Alberta, they might want to jump on the Flames early. Calgary will be playing its fifth game in seven nights, most recently a New Year's Eve win over the Oilers.
Given the Leafs flat scoringlately, that's not going to come easy against a Flames squad that plays tough defensively. Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has won his previous two starts while stopping 57 of 59 shots.
Another area the Leafs have struggled is on the penalty kill where they are dead last in the league with a man down, successfully killing off the penalty just 70.6 of the time. By comparison, the Bruins get the job done at an NHL-best 88 per cent rate.
"Do I have to," Wayne Primeau said when asked to talk about the struggling PK. "It started from game one, it's one of those things I guess everybody is not on the same page. Obviously we bring it up in meetings. It could definitely be a mental thing."
Despite the horrid first half, the Leafs are not anywhere near out of the playoff spot in an Eastern Conference that is clogged with a bunch of mediocre teams. Entering today's play, they are just five points behind the Rangers, who hold down eighth place.
"We've played well against some top teams in the league like Boston, Pittsburgh and Washington, then we've fallen short against teams lower in the standings," defenceman Mike Komisarek said yesterday. "We don't want to be looking back a couple of weeks from now kicking ourselves for letting points slip.
"We've played better of late, but we're still a ways to go from where we want to be."