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Maple Leafs search for ways to end 'depressing' start to new NHL season

The Canadian Press
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Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Vesa Toskala, of Finland, looks over his shoulder as the shot by Pittsburgh Penguins\' Sidney Crosby (right) narrowly misses the goal during first period NHL action in Toronto on Saturday October 10, 2009.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn Author: The Hockey News

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Maple Leafs search for ways to end 'depressing' start to new NHL season

The Canadian Press
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TORONTO - Four games into a new season is certainly no time to panic and while their fans might be climbing up the walls, the Toronto Maple Leafs are doing nothing of the sort.

Still, sharing status with the New York Islanders as the NHL's only winless teams isn't doing much for their confidence, and with back-to-back games coming up against the New York Rangers and Colorado Avalanche, a change in atmosphere will definitely do them some good.

"It's depressing here right now," head coach Ron Wilson said after Saturday's 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins left his team 0-3-1. "We've got to find a way to get some momentum early in the game, that's what has kind of fallen off. Scoring the first goal and building on that, or at least coming out of the first period 0-0 would be a start in the right direction."

The Maple Leafs, who were booed off the ice, did the complete opposite against the defending Stanley Cup champions, digging themselves into an early 2-0 hole and never really finding their "equilibrium," as Wilson put it, after that.

They were undisciplined, and crossing the line in their physical play combined with porous penalty killing led to three power-play goals for the Penguins, quickly giving back the momentum whenever it had swung their way.

Being smarter in that regard and more effective in the offensive zone will help in Monday's affair versus the Rangers (Rogers Sportsnet, 7 p.m. ET).

"In New York we're going to need a big save early, we're going to need some kind of a scoring chance," said Wilson. "We're doing all the other things that you would think in most circumstances would give your team a boost. We've had fights that we've won, we've had some great hits that get the bench excited, yet we haven't been able to really unleash any offence, and that's what we've got to get going early in the game."

A reason for that, Wilson believes, is his team's insistence on attacking from the perimeter instead of using its toughness to drive the net. As a result, the Maple Leafs have just 10 goals through four games and have rarely produced long stretches of pressure in their opponent's end.

Against the Penguins, for instance, many of their shots were blocked by Pittsburgh's collapsing defenders and the Leafs were rarely around to collect the subsequent loose pucks. The two goals they did score, one by tough guy Jay Rosehill and the other by Niklas Hagman, both came off rebounds.

"We're not tough in front of the other team's net," said Wilson. "We've got to do a better job and get more guys driving to the net and paying that kind of price. We're on the outside looking in and we're not going to score many goals doing that."

Goals are likely to be tough to come by versus the usually stingy Rangers and if the Maple Leafs can't pick up their first win against them, the pressure will be turned up even higher for Tuesday's home contest versus the Avalanche.

Wilson indicated backup goalie Joey MacDonald - recalled last week because of Jonas Gustavsson's groin injury - would start at least one of the two games and some better play in net would help.

Vesa Toskala made 28 saves versus the Penguins but looked uncomfortable every time the puck came his way in the first period, and received several mock cheers when he made routine saves. While he hardly deserved all the blame for the loss, he might have stopped a couple of the goals and given his penalty killers an extra sense of security.

"Occasionally you need a save (while shorthanded)," said Wilson. "On the first one (a long point shot by Sergei Gonchar), I think Vesa would want to take that one back, it was a wrist shot, probably through a screen but you need a save there. At the end of the day, that's kind of what your penalty killing comes down to once in a while."

For their part, the Maple Leafs realize that as a whole everybody needs to step up.

The optimism created by the summer's roster makeover is quickly ebbing and while some growing pains were to be expected given all the changes, it doesn't excuse a lack of smarts or consistent effort on the ice.

"We've got to play more desperate," said forward Matt Stajan. "We're waiting for something to happen instead of going out and doing it ourselves. I don't think there's a guy in here who is satisfied with the way they played."

Added Hagman: "We did some things good, obviously we didn't do good things enough. ... We obviously want to get our first win. We feel if we get the energy and we stick to the system and everybody chips in, we're capable of winning."

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Maple Leafs search for ways to end 'depressing' start to new NHL season