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In losing to Sharks, Maple Leafs get their 'benchmark' to reach for

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf (3) dumps San Jose Sharks right winger Brent Burns (88) as Leafs goaltender James Reimer makes a save during first period NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday December 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf (3) dumps San Jose Sharks right winger Brent Burns (88) as Leafs goaltender James Reimer makes a save during first period NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday December 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs lost their fifth in a row Tuesday night, but coach Randy Carlyle hopes that hanging tight with the San Jose Sharks will provide a blueprint for his team to get out of this tailspin.

"We gave ourselves a chance for about half of the game," Carlyle said after the 4-2 loss that was sealed with an empty-netter. "I think that it was a measuring stick that I used. My voice to them was we should be using that. That's how far we have to go because that's the way the elite teams play in the league."

The Sharks and Leafs could not possibly have different styles, given how San Jose coach Todd McLellan emphasizes speed and putting pucks on net. But in the Pacific Division-leading Sharks, the Leafs saw something to reach for in the midst of this skid.

"We have spurts where we're good," winger Mason Raymond said. "I think we play well. But it's only spurts. We need to figure out how to put those spurts together into 60 minutes. That was a team that is top of the league and is a benchmark for us. We realized where they're at and what we have to do to get to that level."

Perhaps shooting more is a good start. Stunning to absolutely no one, the Sharks won in that category, 41-30, though the Leafs did have the game's first three shots and then put goaltender Antti Niemi under siege briefly in the second period.

After a 17:17 shot drought in the first, winger James van Riemsdyk made sure to take a shot off the Leafs' first faceoff of their first power play and later on the focus seemed to be on letting it fly a bit more than usual.

"We're a team we've got a lot of guys that can make plays, but we've tried to simplify it a little bit more and tried to shoot more pucks on the net and hopefully drive the net and get some more of those kind of dirty goals in there," van Riemsdyk said. "That's definitely something we'll continue to try to do."

Beyond just shooting, a 10-minute span in the second period showed how the Leafs can control the play in the offensive zone when they press. They got a cycle game going on a couple of shifts and had the Sharks back on their heels.

"We were clearly outshot, out-faceoffed, out-executed, and it was actually embarrassing for a while," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said.

Van Riemsdyk said it was a product of sticking to a simple game plan of getting the puck deep and establishing a strong forecheck.

"That's just kind of the template that most teams have when they're successful in the league," van Riemsdyk said.

The Leafs have to look no further than the Sharks to see that. Of course McLellan wondered earlier Tuesday about his team finding a consistent effort for 60 minutes, and it certainly wasn't perfect in that regard even in victory.

But what the Sharks managed to do was take advantage of breaks and possess the puck a lot in the offensive zone. That might be something the Leafs should try more often.

"I don't think anybody wants to be playing in their defensive zone if you can be playing in your offensive zone," Raymond said. "Collectively we've got to be better and ultimately put more of a 60-minute game together."

Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.

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