Leafs can't buy a break

Maple Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur crashes into Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi at the Air Canada...

Maple Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur crashes into Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Feb. 23, 2012. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:53 AM ET

TORONTO - Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke acknowledged it earlier this week with his confession that any trade deadline talks now will include kicking the tires for a reliable goaltender.

Coach Ron Wilson as much as admitted that deciding on a starting goalie is a crapshoot given the way Tuesday’s overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils went down.

And Thursday, the Leafs players let their approach early hint that the erosion of confidence has also made it onto the ice.

Tentative and tight through the first two periods of a 2-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks might well have been their undoing as the Leafs are now in their worst funk since the disaster of October-November 2010, a slump that ended last season before it started.

Tough to hang this one on James Reimer, who got his latest chance to make a case for No. 1 in net, or a relatively strong defensive effort in front of him to hold the shot-happy Sharks to just 25.

But by the time the Leafs offence registered just its ninth shot on Sharks netminder Antti Niemi just 34 minutes into the game, they were trailing 2-0 and headed to their seventh loss in eight games before an Air Canada Centre crowd that was equal parts restless and lulled to sleep.

It was the farthest thing from a playoff atmosphere or the desperation a team should have at this time of year, especially with so much on the line. While the first period was a tactical battle at times, with the Sharks not giving the Leafs forwards much room to roam, the Toronto skaters didn’t exactly do much to force the issue, either.

“We passed up shots a lot, missed the net with too many shots and had a lot of shots blocked,” centre Tyler Bozak said. “We’ve got to find a way to get shots through. We weren’t urgent enough.”

How that urgency can be missing this time of year is hard to fathom, of course, but with all the blather of the trade deadline and the playoff race and the goaltending crisis, right now the team isn’t coping very well. A month that began with such promise is bordering on panic as the Leafs are now on pace for just 87 points. The only thing keeping them in playoff contention is the shoddiness of the other Eastern Conference teams in that “hunt.”

So if it isn’t the goaltending or the defence — areas improved on Thursday because of the Leafs’ ability to keep Sharks shooters to the perimeter — it was the offence that went AWOL until an energetic final 20 minutes.

Through two periods, forwards Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski, the most dynamic offensive players on the team, hadn’t managed a single shot. The aggressive-checking Sharks were full credit for much of that, but the desperation that should be automatic right now for the Leafs was missing.

We’re not suggesting that the Leafs have quit on this season — they certainly seem to have more character than that. It is clear, however, that confidence is becoming an issue.

When they finally engaged themselves against a Sharks team that had lost four in a row and was playing game No. 7 of a nine-game road trip, it wasn’t quite enough. And for one more kick, Niemi gave the visitors the type of goaltending the Leafs haven’t had on too many nights this season and even a 16-9 edge in shots couldn’t get them closer than a goal.

“It’s frustrating, that’s for sure,” Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said. “We’re not necessarily playing bad, it’s just the way it goes. We can’t seem to buy a break right now.”


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