Young Leafs learning from adversity

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:08 AM ET

TORONTO - Mired in an eight-game losing streak in which they’ve averaged 1.75 goals a game, and with their power play and penalty kill in the bottom five of both categories, there doesn’t seem to be much for the Maple Leafs to rally around.

And yet their dressing room is not the morgue one would expect after their latest loss — a 5-3 defeat to the Vancouver Canucks — dropped them to 0-6-2 in their past eight games.

True, the Leafs have gone from a 4-0 start to 27th overall in the past month, but netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere believes their current woes are a lesson in team building rather than a sign the whole place is falling apart.

“Being a young team, we’ll get out of this a much better team, a much more experienced team,” Giguere said. “I can see it coming.”

The result against the Canucks wasn’t totally unexpected, given Vancouver is presently battling Montreal for supremacy among Canadian teams. But it’s the coming week that affords Toronto a chance to regain traction.

The Leafs have home games against Nashville and New Jersey, teams near them or, in the Devils’ case, behind them in the standings. Then it’s a trip to Montreal, where the staunchest Habs’ supporter will admit the Leafs take on a different persona.

Toronto took five of a possible six points at the Bell Centre last season.

“Things can’t be pretty all the time, we’re learning that quickly,” winger Kris Versteeg said Sunday. “And we’re learning how to get out of these ruts right now.

“We came out with a great effort (Saturday), came out the way we wanted to. We gave up the (2-0) lead, which you don’t want to do, but we battled back and fought hard the whole way.

“We really need to come back and give that same effort next game.”

Nashville is first up on Tuesday night, just the ninth visit in 12 years by the Tennesseans, who feature ex-Leaf Steve Sullivan, and, possibly, one time enforcer-favourite Wade Belak.

After a sluggish start, Nashville has won a pair, including a shootout over Chicago in a rematch of their hard-fought playoff series.

The Devils just won an overtime game with the much-maligned Ilya Kovalchuk netting his fourth goal of the season to win it.

“Every team in the league is so close, you don’t want to take any team lighter than the next,” Versteeg said.

Of Toronto’s 11 losses, nine have been by two goals or less and three came in overtime or shootouts.

With the exception of 48 hours in Florida last week, where it seemed the Leafs were skating in sand, it can be said the team has been in almost every game so far.

“All teams are going to go through this,” winger Fredrik Sjostrom said. “Obviously eight in a row is a lot of games to lose. But keep battling is the only way to go. We’ve shown we can play, we just have to finish games off.”

Sjostrom had a welcomed goal against the Canucks on a neat tip-in, his first of the year and first since April 1, a sign that secondary scoring is not a totally foreign concept to the Leafs. And Mikhail Grabovski now has goals in consecutive games and three in his past four, meaning all the pressure isn’t falling on Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur.

Those two have 15 of the club’s 35 goals.

“We’re obviously in a struggle, but trying to get out of it,” Kessel said. “It was 3-3 with six minutes to play Saturday and we have to find a way to win, where we find a way to lose.

“We’re still not out of it (playoff-wise), everything is still close when you look at it. You win four or five in a row and you’re right back in the playoffs. You have to go out there and work hard and get things done.”

The club took Sunday off from practice for its annual skills competition for charity, but the two home dates and three practices prior to Montreal will give coach Ron Wilson ample time to better assimilate forward Nazem Kadri and defenceman Keith Aulie into the lineup.

Kadri was quiet on the scoresheet in his first game on Saturday, but played a clean defensive game, which is what the club wanted him to concentrate on while with the Marlies.

Aulie was effective as well in his NHL debut and when Dion Phaneuf returns next month, the Leafs will be able to go with a more hard-hitting blue line staff as the games dictate.


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