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Leafs Hit The Road Looking To Improve Defensive Game

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
You need 10,000 things to go right to win. Losing requires one or two things to go

That in a nutshell, is the story of the Toronto Maple Leafs as they head out on a short but nonetheless welcome road trip to Dallas and Phoenix.

Tuesday’s 4-2 home loss to Boston is a splendid example. The Leafs grabbed a 2-0 lead, suffered a fatal giveaway that gave Boston their game opening goal and then rallied to dominate the Bruins.

But after Boston scored to tie the game, the Leafs fragile confidence evaporated. The result: a 4-2 loss in which Toronto owned most of the play.

In their rear view, the Leafs will see two remarkably dissimilar games, a 3-0 dismantling of the powerhouse Ottawa Senators and Tuesday’s downer.

The Leafs are 8-9-5 and that is nothing to write home about. It is, however, probably too soon to write off the season.

“We’ve played 22 games,” said goalie Andrew Raycroft. “It’s not like every team is running away with it. Everyone else is at .500. You can ask half the teams in the league that are around .500 what’s going wrong.”

Maybe, but a look at the standings shows the Leafs, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Tampa and Atlanta as the only Eastern teams within two games of .500.

What is fascinating about this Leafs season isn’t how many things have gone wrong, but how many have gone right.

“Look around the dressing room,” said forward Alexei Ponikarovsky. “We have everything. We have skill, we have size, we have speed. We are capable of doing a lot of things. We just have to put everything together and work hard on it.”

Consider the output of Mats Sundin, on pace for a 40-goal season. He has 28 points in 22 games and stands at plus eight. They say that at 36 players start slowing down.

Nik Antropov has been spectacular in what amounts to a breakthrough season.

Alex Steen and Matt Stajan have grasped the necessities of life as a pro after shoddy starts last season. Both have been dramatically better than at this stage last year.

Yes, Jason Blake has only scored twice but since he wasn’t a Leaf last year, it’s hard to paint him as a negative when comparing this year’s team and last.

None of the key forwards have slipped from last year. The only production decline has come from the fringes of the lineup, Bates Battaglia, John Pohl and Chad Kilger.

Rookie Jiri Tlusty has thrived as a dependable, energetic forward. He is an absolute bonus. Mark Bell has played his way onto the second line. On balance, the Leafs forward corps is dramatically better than last year’s.

Pavel Kubina and Carlo Colaiacovo have been sidelined by injuries but Tomas Kaberle has upped his play and Ian White and Hal Gill have proven themselves to be remarkably steady. Kubina was good and getting better in the 18 games he played and while the flammable tendencies of Bryan McCabe have been well documented, he has played some of his best hockey of late.

The goaltending has been mostly good, sometimes great and sometimes not but the Leafs aren’t struggling to meet the break-even mark because of their netminding.

So what is the deal here? Why is a club that is, on paper, substantially better than the one that missed the playoffs by a point last year, spinning its wheels?

The answer, said coach Paul Maurice, lies with defence.

“I’m not growing impatient. I know that this is going to be a painful process and a necessary one. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had some direct conversations about this. This hasn’t been a fun place to be for a couple of weeks now. At the same time, we have to go through it. We have to become a better defensive hockey club and that’s not an easy thing to do.

Maurice doesn’t use the word trap but he doesn’t refute it either.

“There’s only about three or four (systems) played around the league and they are all played in a fairly similar manner. It’s your positioning in it and your understanding of what has to happen.

“We’ve been running that neutral zone since March of last year,” he said. “What we are really trying to promote is not having three forwards caught in the offensive zone and making sure we work our butts off.”
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