Leafs Waffle into Christmas Break

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    Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

    It’s Christmas time and the Maple Leafs don’t have enough points in their stocking. An inconsistent level of play has surely put the team on Santa’s naughty list, leaving it up to the players to start working their way back into playoff contention or at the very least out of lottery pick contention; a task will that will be difficult to achieve at this rate. As if the lump of coal in their future wasn’t enough, the Leafs had to welcome a red hot Atlanta Thrashers squad into to town with both teams looking to head into the holiday break on a positive note. Some extra incentive on the Leaf bench was found in the form of two former Thrashers. Although the team is struggling, on Sunday both Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong expressed no regret with their decision to join the Leafs through free agency. MacArthur, who leads the Leafs in assists (16) and points (25), touched on his new found play-making ability.

    “I felt like I was always a playmaker. It was just a matter of getting the confidence and obviously, having linemates (Grabovski, Kulemin) scoring the goals. They’ve done well and they’re consistent every night. I couldn’t be happier coming here. Even though we are struggling a little bit, I just feel that this is a team that can rebound and get something done. What’s done is done (in Atlanta) and I’ve enjoyed every minute here. They’re obviously off to a great start. They have some new guys in there, changed the coaching staff up. Whatever they did there has sparked the team and we’ll have our hands full with them tomorrow.”

    MacArthur could not have been more accurate in making that statement as the Leafs were overwhelmed as soon as the puck hit the ice for the opening faceoff. Hemmed in their own zone and under tremendous pressure, the Leafs once again surrendered the game’s first goal; a trait that has haunted them all season long (the Leafs have trailed first in 61% of games this season). A Ron Hainsey slap shot was tipped past Jonas Gustavsson by a screening Freddy Modin, who made things difficult on the Leafs netminder. Just 28 seconds later the wheels seemed to fall off for the Maple Leafs and the Thrashers grabbed an early two goal lead. With Colton Orr serving a tripping penalty, the Atlanta powerplay went to work on the league’s 29th ranked penalty kill. A Tobias Enstrom point shot was blasted right over the glove of Gustavsson, and just like that the Leafs were caught sleeping early. Despite a brief sign of life from the Toronto bench in the second half of the first period, Ondrej Pavelec shut the door and the Thrashers early 2-0 lead stuck into the first intermission.

    The Leafs seem to build on some momentum from their late first period surge in the second and were able to get into the game and eventually on the board. With Dustin Byfuglien, a key Thrasher penalty killer, in the box, the Leafs powerplay was able to click on their second chance of the game. Phil Kessel was unable to bury the puck in an open net, but John Mitchell found it and put home the tough angle shot for his first of the year. The powerplay goal lifted the Leafs spirits and their level of play seemed to elevate, but the Thrashers were able to widen the margin again late in the period. A cross ice pass scattered the Leafs defense and Tobias Enstrom blasted another shot from the point only to be tipped once again by Freddy Modin for the 3-1 lead at the second intermission.

    The third period would see the Leafs mistakes continue to cost them and eventually spelled the end of the night for Jonas Gustavsson, who was struggling to see the puck throughout the evening. After Anthony Stewart made it 4-1, Tobias Enstrom beat Gustavsson for his second of the night and the 5-1 lead. Following the fifth Thrasher goal, Ron Wilson had seen enough and gave rookie goaltender James Reimer the nod. Reimer, who was called up in relief of the injured J.S. Giguere, received an early Christmas gift with his first NHL regular season play. The game may have been a little closer had it not been for a few critical mistakes but fans had seen enough and the evidence was all over the ice. Displaying their giving spirit, a few fans littered the ice with waffles, a disturbing trend developing of late at the Air Canada Centre. The turmoil visibly effected the Leaf morale and they would eventually respond. Although a glimpse of shame and perhaps disgust could be seen on the players’ faces, their response was certainly admirable. A four minute man advantage allowed the Leafs power play to click again and is deserving of praise as they were able to find two quick goals. Mikhail Grabovski, red hot as of late, scored his 7th goal in 8 games. In the second half of the double minor, Nikolai Kulemin would give his team and the building some positive life with the Leafs’ third goal. The late surge would be all for not however, and Thrasher captain Andrew Ladd sealed the 6-3 victory with the empty net goal.

    In mere minutes of play where critical mistakes were made, the Leafs cost themselves the game. Jonas Gustavsson seemed to be fighting the puck, although a few goals were tipped in close and the Thrashers took advantage of the shaky Swede. His lack of defensive support was victimized as the Thrashers quickly began to get shots on goal from all areas and created havoc around the net.

    Asked after the game if he could take any positives from his team’s game, Head Coach Ron Wilson credited the power play but was quick to point out their inability to capitalize on 40 shots and many chances.

    “We never gave up and showed some effort in the response, but we had too many missed opportunities, especially from our important people who you would think should bury those chances but were unable to.”

    While unfair to pin the result squarely on his shoulders, Wilson did admit he feels Jonas Gustavsson is not at his best.

    “Unfortunately he’s been struggling a bit. In hindsight I probably should have taken him out a little sooner, but I wanted him to battle through it.”

    Along with Gustavsson, the Leafs will have to persevere, find some consistency and increase their relevance within the Eastern Conference playoff race. A win tonight could have been a confidence boost heading into the break; instead the bad start and spells of lost control will linger until after Christmas. With a historic tendency to stumble out of the gate following the holiday break, players may be forced to cut their downtime short as they prepare for a very tough second half. And if the fan disgust exhibited by the second waffling of the ice hit home for Leafs players, the down time to reevaluate couldn’t have come at a better time.