TORONTO – Ron Wilson’s next move to try and wake up the winless Toronto Maple Leafs is to give his players the day off.
The Leafs coach benched two of his top scorers in favour of rookies and was forced to start third-string goalie Joey MacDonald on Tuesday night and still wound up with the same kind of result – a 4-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
Even though that left Toronto sitting dead last in the league, Wilson is sticking to his plan of having everyone take Wednesday off. The team has just one game over the next 10 days and he’s intent on using that time to lighten the mood.
“First of all, we’ve got to relax here a little bit – maybe just do a complete reset,” said Wilson. “The worst has already happened up to this point (with) how you could possibly start a season. We’re not going to practise all of those (upcoming off-days) – it might seem logical to practise and work on everything, but we’ve got to just relax here a little bit and step away tomorrow.
“(We’ll) try to have a little bit of fun on Thursday and go from there.”
After starting 0-5-1, there’s only one direction to go.
Former Leaf Darcy Tucker played a big role in the latest setback, scoring a goal and adding an assist in his first game back in Toronto since being bought out in the summer of 2008. He was thrilled to make an impact.
“I’m not going to lie to you, it felt great,” said Tucker. “To score back in a place where I’ve scored a number of goals over my career, it was exciting. I think it was more exciting for my kids in the stands than anything.”
He’s still being paid US$1 million per year by a Leafs team that looked like they could have used some of his energy on Tuesday.
Brett Clark, David Jones and John-Michael Liles had the other goals for Colorado (4-1-1). Craig Anderson made 30 stops to earn his fourth victory of the season.
Francois Beauchemin replied for the Leafs, who don’t play again until hosting the New York Rangers on Saturday.
Even though there was clearly a foul mood in the team’s dressing room after the game, many of the players believe the only way to turn things around is to stay positive.
“The easy thing to do is to hang our heads and get frustrated and get down,” said Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek. “That can’t happen.”
Wilson was so desperate to try and get his team going that he sat veteran forwards Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman, who had accounted for five of the team’s 12 goals prior to the game against Colorado. He was pleased with the play of rookies Viktor Stalberg and Tyler Bozak in their place.
One of the only bright spots came when Bozak registered an assist in his first NHL game.
“That’s definitely a proud moment for me and my family,” said Bozak.
After the game, Wilson indicated that he’s likely headed back to the American Hockey League this week. MacDonald, meanwhile, might get another start because No. 1 goalie Vesa Toskala will be out as long as two weeks with a knee injury and backup Jonas Gustavsson remains sidelined with a sore groin.
The journeyman goaltender finished with 24 saves in his Leafs debut on Tuesday.
“There was some weird bounces tonight,” said MacDonald. “Those things happen when you’re in a slump.”
Toronto gave Colorado two power plays in the opening 10 minutes of the game and Clark capitalized on the second one. His point shot beat MacDonald while the Leafs goalie was being screened by Ian White – his own defenceman.
Jones extended that lead to 2-0 just before the intermission. He made a pretty play on a solo rush to get around Tomas Kaberle before sliding the puck by MacDonald with 50.9 seconds left in the first period.
“We’re getting beat 1-on-1 – and guys getting beat 1-on-1 who shouldn’t,” said Wilson. “It should not happen in this league. It’s not like it was Joey Sakic.”
Falling into an early hole has been a big problem for these Leafs, who have been outscored 10-2 in the opening 20 minutes of games this season.
Beauchemin briefly brought some life back to his team with his first in a Toronto uniform at 3:33 of the second period, but Tucker quickly nullified that by scoring his third goal of the season just over two minutes later. The feisty winger pumped his fists after knocking in a rebound from the top of the crease on a power play.
The real dagger probably came on Colorado’s fourth goal as Liles saw his floating shot go off the head of defenceman Mike Komisarek and into the net at 9:36.
There was still half a game to be played but the result was sealed by then.
Disgruntled fans started to boo the Leafs towards the end of the second period and continued throughout a lifeless final 20 minutes. One even started to yell “Let’s go Raptors!” as the building emptied early.
It was the kind of scene Tucker experienced during the end of his tenure in the city and he admitted to feeling a little sorry for his former teammates after hearing it again.
“I’ve got some close friends there, especially a couple guys I played with for a number of years in Kaberle and Stajan,” said Tucker. “I feel for them, obviously. But you’ve got to understand it’s six games into the year – you don’t make the playoffs in six games and you don’t get on the outside looking in six games. It’s a full season.
“Obviously, they’ve got some work to do.”
Notes: The Leafs honoured former captain Ted Kennedy before the game … Liles missed the third period with an injury to his right shoulder … Wilson also scratched defenceman Jeff Finger against his former team … Teenagers Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly each had an assist for the Avalanche … Leafs goalie James Reimer served as the backup in his first NHL game. He needed to get directions to the Air Canada Centre for the morning skate … Announced attendance was 19,148.