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Wild, Maple Leafs must find way back into fast lane

by Dennis Ryan
TORONTO -- Expect to see two desperate teams at Air Canada Centre tonight, as the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Minnesota Wild. Both teams are struggling lately and sit in ninth place in their respective conferences, falling out of playoff positions they have held for much of the season. The Leafs have lost three straight games, while the Wild have lost 10 straight on the road and have won just two of their last 16 overall.

Toronto coach Ron Wilson isn't happy with the defensive play of his club and will split up the high-scoring combination of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul for the first time this season, coming off Tuesday's 3-2 loss to Ottawa when the top line was victimized for two key goals. Matthew Lombardi will join Tyler Bozak and Kessel, while Lupul will skate with Tim Connolly and Nazem Kadri.

"We have to pay more attention to detail on defense," said Wilson, whose team has been outscored 9-4 on the current losing skid. "We have to stop the other teams. Sometimes you can't control how well the other goalie plays. All they hear here is 'secondary scoring, secondary scoring, you've got to score more goals.' If you're giving up three, yes you do; if you only give up one or two or none, you don't."

Wilson stressed that though the goaltender or defensemen often take the blame for goals against, the forwards are often just as culpable.

"Half the time it's a forward not getting the job done in the neutral zone or the offensive zone, a bad turnover, a poor decision, not backchecking properly or not winning a battle on the boards to help the 'D' get the puck out," he said.

With Mike Komisarek returning after one game in the press box, the defensive pairings will shift as well. Komisarek will play with Carl Gunnarsson, Dion Phaneuf joins Luke Schenn, and Jake Gardiner pairs with Cody Franson. Keith Aulie appears to be the odd man out.

Jonas Gustavsson, who gets the start in net, does not foresee any issues with the new pairings.

"I trust all our (defensemen)," Gustavsson said. "If I have to worry about who is out there I might lose focus on my own game. No matter who is out there I trust them to do their job and I'm going to focus on doing mine."

Of note for the Wild, goaltender Niklas Backstrom returns to action for the first time since Jan. 7, having missed the last four games with a stomach virus.

Coach Mike Yeo will make adjustments up front as well. With top center Mikko Koivu still sidelined with a shoulder injury, Warren Peters will get a shot at the top line between Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.

Yeo is confident Peters can get the job done.

"Despite being very inexperienced in the NHL, he is an experienced player and has a pretty good idea of what his foundation is as a player and the way he has to play the game," Yeo said of Peters, who has played eight seasons in the AHL but just 62 career games in the NHL. "It's not an easy thing for a lot of players to get thrown up to the top line. It's important that he doesn't try to change his game or get outside of what he has to do, and we think he's capable of that."

Much like Wilson, Yeo wants his team to go back to defensive fundamentals to break out of its recent funk.

"We have to understand that we have a lot of skill guys out (Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Guillaume Latendresse). Offense isn't going to come as easily, so we have to have a much stronger focus on the defensive part of our game," Yeo said. "When we were winning games, we were a team that was real tough to play against defensively."

As for the Wild having fallen out of a playoff spot, Yeo had a quick answer.

"It’s not how you drive, it's how you arrive," he said.

Both the Wild and the Leafs need to get back in the fast lane soon, or their playoff hopes could be in jeopardy.

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