While it's been an inconsistent December for the Toronto Maple Leafs, they do have one more opportunity to conclude the month on a positive note.
The Maple Leafs try to avoid their fourth straight loss on Tuesday night when they host the struggling Atlanta Thrashers.
After dropping three of its first four December contests, Toronto regrouped by winning five of the next six, including a 6-2 victory at Atlanta on Dec. 22.
But the Maple Leafs (14-16-6) lost that momentum with their current three-game losing streak, including consecutive 4-1 losses in their last two games. Their 4-1 setback at Southeast-leading Washington on Sunday marked the 17th time they have allowed at least four goals.
Defensive problems have plagued coach Ron Wilson's club all season. Toronto has conceded 130 goals - two fewer than Atlanta (12-20-4) - to rank among the league's worst, and 16 during the current slide.
Though the Maple Leafs have been more effective on the opposite end of the ice with 3.03 goals per game, they've been held to four goals in the last three contests after totaling 26 in the previous six. Forwards Matt Stajan and Nik Antropov, who lead the team with 30 and 29 points, respectively, have been limited to one assist combined during the team's skid.
"We have to produce more goals," said Antropov, who tops the Maple Leafs with 13 goals and has three goals and 11 assists during an seven-game point streak against Atlanta. "I don't think we're going to the net as hard as we can."
Toronto's offensive unit will be further limited as Stajan sat out Sunday's game with an eye injury and could miss up to a week, leaving the Maple Leafs short-handed for the opener of a four-game homestand that will carry them through the first week of 2009.
Atlanta, meanwhile, closes out the calendar year with back-to-back road games. It has won three of its last four away contests, as well as three of its last four visits to Air Canada Centre, most recently a 6-3 victory on Nov. 25.
Center Todd White - third on the Thrashers with 32 points - scored twice in that matchup. He had five goals and six assists during a career high-tying eight-game point streak that ended in Sunday's 2-1 home loss to Eastern Conference-leading Boston.
"It's frustrating," said center Bryan Little, who scored in the defeat and has six of his team-leading 18 goals over the last three games. "We worked so hard all game and they score in the last few minutes."
The Thrashers have dropped three of their last four games, and are 5-13-2 since winning a season-high five straight from Nov. 2-14. With 28 points, they are last in the Southeast and six behind the Maple Leafs in the East standings.
Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen has yielded 10 goals on 104 shots in losing two of the three starts he's made since returning following a back injury. He gave up five goals in losing to Toronto earlier this month, and is 1-5-0 with a 3.35 goals-against average in six career outings.
Winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who tops the Thrashers with 24 assists and 35 points, and has 10 goals and 11 assists in 25 lifetime games versus the Leafs.
Toronto may start Vesa Toskala, who has compiled a 1.81 GAA and a .926 save percentage in winning five of six lifetime matchups against Atlanta. But he's allowed 14 goals on 86 shots in losing his last three starts.