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Despite Loss, Leafs Show Signs Of Hope

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Let's get rid of the obvious stuff first.

As you may have heard, the Maple Leafs lost 2-1 to the Tampa Bay Lighting at Air Canada Centre

Ryan Malone delivered the winner with 2:21 in overtime. It was the Leafs' fourth straight loss after a deadlock in regulation.

Phil Kessel, playing his first game as a Leaf, was held of the scoresheet. The Leafs have just one regulation win in the first 13 games of the season.

There. Now you know virtually nothing about where the Maple Leafs are and where they are going.

Here's how you rebuild a hockey team:first you're bad, then you're better, then you're good.

And there was nothing, absolutely nothing from the game that would convince you that the Leafs aren't better and aren't far from being good. Not great, good.

Don't tell me about the numbers and there is no need to remind me that the Lightning are a .500 team playing on the road.

A Tuesday night game in November isn't supposed to be memorable but Tuesday's game was beautifully played, suspenseful and choked with story lines.

Start with Kessel.

"He attempted 19 shots," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "Ten hit the net, seven were blocked and two missed. I ended up playing him 23 minutes and change. He was sucking a little wind at the end, but after I saw the room he could create, I had to keep putting him out there."

Kessel hit the crossbar in overtime and, for good measure, veered into a thunderous bodycheck authored by Mattias Ohlund that hurt anyone who saw it.

"I haven't been hit that hard in a long time," Kessel said. "It was a clean hit. He got me good."

Kessel would spend a moment in the dressing room and when he returned any fear that the shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup for six months had vaporized.

It was, in all, a stunning debut and while every night will clearly not be like Tuesday, Kessel could score if he played with a pool stick.

The best player in the contest was Lightning goalie Antero Nittymaki who stopped 41 shots including 11 with his team shorthanded. Tampa fired 32 at Toronto goalie Jonas Gustavsson.

And while much was made over Kessel's first game, this was Gustavsson's debut as well.

Saturday in Montreal, Vesa Toskala continued his trend of allowing one hideous goal a game.
It's Gustavsson's job to lose now.

Gustavsson made one critical mistake against the Lighting. By himself with the puck beside the net in the second, he tried to throw it to a teammate near his own blueline. The puck was intercepted and while Gustavsson was able to stop the first shot, Vincent Lecavalier ripped home the rebound.

"The puck knuckled a little bit," Gustavsson said. "If I made a good hit on the puck I think I would have made it to our guy.Sometimes it doesn't work. It was too bad they scored a goal on it."

"I don't know why he played that puck," Wilson said. "We didn't talk to him going back and a turnover turned into a goal."

The Leafs tied things on a power play goal by Ian White in the third but the Lightning's Malone chipped a shot over Gustavsson after a frantic Leafs siege for the winner.

The Leafs don't play again until Friday in Carolina. They will have to live with a tired story line of overtime losses until then.

"It's like the movie Groundhog Day," Wilson said. "Over and over the same thing happens."

But for the final result, that would be a great fate for the Leafs. There wasn't one player, Tuesday, along for the ride. Tomas Kaberle, the NHL's reigning player of the week was terrific. So were Nik Hagman, Mike Komisarek, White and Francois Beauchemin.

A loss is never a moral victory. But some are signposts. Last year, the Leafs were bad. Now it looks like they have a goalie and a gunner. That's two elements they didn't have when the season started. If they continue to play as they did Tuesday, good isn't that far away.
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