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Leafs spending time working out defensive kinks

by Arpon Basu
BROSSARD, Que. -- After blaming a lot of the defensive woes of the Toronto Maple Leafs on his goaltending recently, coach Ron Wilson decided Friday to address the problems surrounding his net rather than the one between the pipes.

Wilson ran the Maple Leafs through an intense practice that ran over an hour at the Canadiens' suburban practice facility in advance of their game Saturday matchup at Bell Centre (7 p.m., NHLN-US, CBC), and the focus clearly was placed on how Toronto defends its end of the ice.

"Right now we've just got to play better in our zone," Wilson said. "We're getting chances, we're scoring goals, but we have to be better in front of our goalie. It's as simple as that. That's what today's practice was all about."

With his team's playoff chances dwindling and the city of Toronto in a panic about the possibility of yet another spring without playoff hockey, the sense of urgency the Maple Leafs are feeling in the current situation clearly was evident through the effort on the ice.

The Leafs are in a 1-9-1 funk that has dropped them five points behind eighth-place Winnipeg heading into Friday's games. On the same date last season, the Leafs were six points out of eighth place. Except last season they erased a dismal first half with a strong surge after the All-Star break; this season, it's the opposite situation.


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"You can't think about the past," Wilson said. "We've got 18 games to get this thing turned around and get ourselves in the playoffs."

Despite allowing five goals in Wednesday's 5-4 loss in Chicago -- a game Toronto led 3-1 in the first period -- Wilson will start Jonas Gustavsson in goal for a second straight game while James Reimer serves as the backup.

"We tried to get a rhythm out of Reims and it didn't work," Wilson said, "so we'll see if Gustavsson can get a couple of starts here and come up with a solid effort."

The Maple Leafs have not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2004, and it would be hard for the players not to be reminded of that fact nearly every day in Toronto during a slide like this one. While the players said it was planned in advance, coming straight to Montreal from Chicago and spending an extra day here could not have come at a better time.

Most of the team went out for dinner together at a local Italian restaurant, with the tab being picked up by center Mikhail Grabovski.

"Hopefully that's what it takes," said Joffrey Lupul.

The inherent pressures that come with such a long playoff drought in a hockey-mad market like Toronto can be a heavy burden, but Matthew Lombardi said the challenge lies in converting that burden into an asset.

But it's not always easy.

"You try to put good pressure on yourself and try to make it a good energy, but obviously it can go both ways," Lombardi said. "It's one of those things where you have to take that negative pressure and turn it into a positive. It's easier said than done, but we've been able to do it for the most part."

Within the team itself, captain Dion Phaneuf said the stress levels are not necessarily higher than needed, there's just an acute awareness of how crucial games like Saturday's are to their postseason hopes.

"I don't think there's tension," Phaneuf said. "We're confident in the group that we have. We know we have to play better; we haven't played well enough. We've been in so many one-goal games that we haven't been able to win. It's been tough in the sense that we need to find a way to win those tight games because every game this time of year is tight. But there's no tension."

Wilson has been under enormous heat during the rough stretch, including chants by fans at Air Canada Centre calling for his job. However, Phaneuf said it is unfair to target the coach in a situation like the one the Leafs find themselves in.

"Whether you win games or you lose games, it's a team," he said. "No one guy is singled out, whether it's the coaching staff or whether it's a player. As a group we need to win hockey games and we need to start doing that. We know the severity of where we're at right now in the standings and how big every point is."

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