Heat is getting to Leafs

Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson wipes his brow during practice at the MasterCard Centre in...

Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson wipes his brow during practice at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto, Ont., Feb. 22, 2012. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:32 PM ET

TORONTO - After waiting years to get in a meaningful playoff race, the Maple Leafs have suddenly pulled up lame.

Not through injuries — for a change — but a collective brain cramp that has spread from the dressing room to the bench to the crease and on to key areas of the 200-by-85 foot surface. Squeezed on four sides by the standings, the trade deadline, their coaches and the increasingly impatient public, the Leafs are not responding as hoped to this increased pressure.

Critics who dismissed their traditional post all-star game spurts since the lockout as a tease may have a case. It’s easy to get up for games when no one expects much of you. Up until this year, the Leafs’ record after Feb. 1 since 2005 was 93-63-24, good for 210 points, but not good enough to alter a post-season derby they had trailed by several lengths.

This month, with far better prospects, they started by winning three straight, then heard footsteps and are now in their worst slide of the season, 1-5-1 entering Thursday’s home game against San Jose.

The players, who make up the NHL’s third youngest roster, will admit to problems, but bristle at the notion they are incapable of handling the heat on the big stage.

“It’s a mixture of everything,” winger Mike Brown said Wednesday at the MasterCard Centre. “Maybe it’s scoreboard watching and concentrating on other teams rather than ourselves. Not paying attention to detail. We got away from that, now we have to steer back.

“We got sucked into that little trap you get into this time of year. You have to get back to basics, get back to our style, our structure and just look at the next game. Set the winning streak back up.”

Brown pointed out that possessing eighth spot today is higher than many pundits had Toronto pegged almost six months ago.

“We’d have taken eighth (in October). Even though we’ve lost some games, we’re still in playoff position. As it stands, if we win (most) of our games, we’re in. We have to get our points and let it all play out from there.”

At one time, the Leafs could think about playing .500 hockey to get to the mid-90s point range that ensures a playoff spot. Now they could need at least 15 wins in the final 22 and hope for pursuing teams such as Winnipeg, Tampa Bay and Buffalo to cool off.

“It’s a tight situation right now and everybody gets caught up in the standings,” defenceman Cody Franson said. “You can’t get away from it, even for a day. But you get a point last night (in an overtime loss to New Jersey) and that’s enough to keep you in eighth. You stay close as a group and move forward.”

Before playing the Leafs, Jersey’s demi-god goalie Martin Brodeur mentioned that a recent win against the Canadiens resulted from letting the playoff-desperate Habs break ranks and try and force something in a close game. The Devils pounced for a 3-1 win. The Leafs, who have some fast players, have been guilty of over-exuberance at times this month. Of the league’s five youngest teams, all but one ranks between fifth and eighth in their conference, the exception being the Eastern leading Rangers at 27.1 average years, to the Leafs’ 26.9.

“We’re young, but at the same time we’re a hungry group,” Franson said. “Yes, we make mistakes, but it’s not from lack of try. You want your mistakes out of aggression and not being passive. Some of our mistakes are from being too passive in a game and we’re trying to change that.”

Toronto prides itself on a better dressing room chemistry this year and that’s true to a degree. But now goaltending, usually a second-half strength, is a mess and their top scorers are blanketed most nights. Captain Dion Phaneuf is hard-pressed for answers in public, but not yet ready to call anyone out.

So there has yet to be a defining rally moment, unless general manager Brian Burke creates one with a trade by Monday’s deadline.


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