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Collapse against Blackhawks latest bump in Leafs' rollercoaster ride

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TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs will miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season if they continue at their current pace.

They are 3-4-2 for eight of a possible 18 points.

Their rollercoaster ride through the NHL schedule is torturing their fans, who were forced to walk a bed of nails Saturday night. The Leafs entered the third period up 3-1 and lost 6-4 to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Ouch.

"Every time we get a lead we sit back and we don't play as hard as we can," said winger Jason Blake. "That's when we take penalties and it's going to burn you."

Jason Williams, Andrei Zyuzin, Duncan Keith, Robert Lang, Patrick Sharp and Tuomo Ruutu, with an empty netter with 25 seconds left, scored for the Blackhawks. Patrick Lalime, the fifth consecutive backup to be used against the Leafs, earned the goaltending victory. Chicago had a 39-32 shots edge.

Mats Sundin scored twice and Tomas Kaberle and Chad Kilger once each for the Leafs. Andrew Raycroft played well through two periods but couldn't cope with the Blackhawks' third-period splurge.

There was a decisive factor: Chicago's speed, which induced the Leafs into hooking and holding penalties. The Blackhawks enjoyed seven power plays, scoring four times, while the Leafs were 0-for-1.

Alexei Ponikarovsky, who took only one minor penalty in the previous five games he played, was assessed three by Paul Devorski and Dean Warren.

"I got three tonight?" the peeved Ukrainian responded to inquisitors. "I don't know, in my opinion, (the referees) could call some penalties on them, too, but for some reason, (they) were pissed off at us.

"I don't know why, (but the referees) were just looking for us."

The last call - interference with 54 seconds left - really bugged him. It killed any chance Toronto had of a last-minute equalizer with Raycroft out for an extra attacker.

"The guy turned, I tried to get his stick up, and he was too tired and just fell down," said Ponikarovsky. "I didn't hook him or anything.

"He dove and (the referee) called the penalty. (The referee) was looking for it."

Teammates were more realistic.

"It comes down to penalties," said Raycroft. "They're just killing us. It's frustrating."

"You can sit and complain all you want but it never changes (the referees') opinions," said Kilger. "We can't blame it on anyone but the guys on the ice and, right now, it's not good enough."

The Blackhawks beat Colorado 5-3 the previous night at home and didn't get to their Toronto hotel until 3 a.m. ET. Yet, they still had too much jump for the rested Leafs.

As soon as Chicago tied it 3-3 with two goals in 30 seconds early in the third, the Leafs appeared to become mesmerized.

"We're slowing down in the third period," said coach Paul Maurice. "It's not a conditioning issue, it's an attention issue.

"They're so tight on the bench."

So, this is how Toronto's season has gone so far: a 4-3 overtime loss to Ottawa, a 3-2 loss at Ottawa, a 4-3 overtime win over Montreal, a 7-1 loss to Carolina, an 8-1 win over the Islanders, a 6-4 loss to Pittsburgh, a 5-4 overtime loss in Buffalo, a 3-2 win over Florida and now this.

Seven of the those nine games were at Air Canada Centre, where the Leafs promised to be a harder team to play this season. It is not happening.

"It's a bad circle right now we need to get out of, and the only way to get out of it is hard work," said Alex Steen.

The collapse spoiled a great game by Sundin, who turned on the jets for two breakaway goals that upped his season's output to five and his career total to 528. He trails Frank Mahovlich, who is 27th on the all-time list, by only five.

The Leafs were well aware before the season began that they needed to reduce goals against to make the playoffs. It is not happening.

As of Sunday, they were third (3.67 goals a game) in offence and 29th (4.11 goals a game) on defence in the 30-team league.

"The way I see it the most is that easy things that should happen just aren't happening," said Maurice. "D-to-D passes - there's a turnover and we just can't handle it."

Toronto is 28th in power-play efficiency and 18th in penalty killing.

Expect to see Vesa Toskala in goal when Toronto plays the visiting Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday. Road games follow in Pittsburgh on Thursday and in New York against the Rangers on Saturday.

The new Blackhawks, a dynamic mix of savvy veterans and fast young legs, improved to 5-3-0 in their first game in Canada.

It's a great start for a franchise that hasn't had a playoff spot since 2002 and in eight of the last nine seasons, and coach Denis Savard hopes empty seats in the United Centre will start getting filled.

"Chicago fans will be back," Savard predicted. "They've got a lot to look forward to."

Winnipeg product Jonathan Toews, 19, and Buffalo-born Pat Kane, 18, are going to be stars.

"Their will is so huge and you can't teach that," said Savard. "They're great players but, more important, their will is huge."

Toews, fresh out of college hockey at North Dakota, has a commanding presence on the ice.

"It was awesome to play that first game in Canada," he said. "I had it marked on my calendar.

"I was definitely looked forward to it."

Kane ate it all up, too.

"It was unbelievable," said the former London Knight. "It's a lot different than the States.

"You kind of wish every game was this exciting. It was awesome. I had a great time."

Notes: Chicago hadn't played in Toronto since Feb. 3, 2004 . . . It was the only meeting between the teams this season. . . . The Blackhawks were in and out of Canada. They return for a sweep through Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, Nov. 22-25. . . . Leafs led 25-22 in hits and won 58 per cent of faceoffs. . . . Leafs centre Nik Antropov had a league-best rating of plus 10 on the plus-minus charts as of Sunday. . . . Sergei Samsonov has been in all eight Chicago games and has yet to score a goal.

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