TORONTO – Niklas Hagman feels like his first couple months with the Toronto Maple Leafs have been something of a roller-coaster ride.
He better make sure to stay buckled in. The Maple Leafs have dropped eight of their last 10 games and it looks as though Brian Burke is only days away from taking over the general manager’s job. That could be a volatile mix.
The latest dud from Toronto came Tuesday when the Atlanta Thrashers arrived at Air Canada Centre and hammered the home side 6-3. The Thrashers entered the game as the worst team in the Eastern Conference, but rode some inspired play by Ilya Kovalchuk and two goals from Todd White to victory.
It was a tough loss for the Leafs to explain afterwards.
“We’re playing the same kind of roller-coaster hockey that we did in the start of the year, (when) we managed to be more on the good side than right now,” said Hagman. “It’s little things. We keep losing 1-on-1 battles, we allowed them to come in front of our net and they pushed us around a little bit.
“That’s something we shouldn’t allow in our building.”
The team also clearly needs to start allowing fewer goals.
Toronto has surrendered a league-worst 78 against this season – something coach Ron Wilson admits to being surprised about. He’s earned a reputation as a defensive coach for his work in the past, but is still struggling to get through to this group.
The thing that boggled him most on Tuesday was how little passion his team had.
“It’s your effort and compete level and it wasn’t there,” said Wilson. “It was a flat bench and just dead – that’s what disappoints me more than anything.”
Atlanta had lost three in a row coming in and gave coach John Anderson the effort he was hoping to see. As a former Maple Leaf and teammate of Wilson, Anderson had this game circled on his calendar since the schedule was released.
The rookie NHL coach was raving about Kovalchuk after watching his star player score a goal and engage Leafs defenceman Ian White in a rare fight.
“That’s the most enthusiasm I’ve seen him have all year,” said Anderson. “He’s got a bit of a bloody nose for it, but I think he’d trade that for a win any day.
“Kovie, he’s the face of the Thrashers and when you see your big scorer go in there and fight and score and hit and do whatever he has to do and scrap to win, I think it lifts the rest of the team.”
Colby Armstrong, Chris Thorburn and Mathieu Schneider also scored for Atlanta (8-10-2).
Nik Antropov, Jeff Finger and Hagman replied for the Maple Leafs (7-9-5).
In addition to their own play, the Leafs were unhappy with a third-period hit by Armstrong that knocked Jason Blake out of the game with a possible concussion. The Thrashers forward appeared to catch Blake with a shoulder to the head.
“When you watch the hit, the guy left his feet,” said Wilson. “He launched himself, that’s something that we want to eradicate from the game. Blakey was in a vulnerable position.”
It was that kind of night for the Maple Leafs.
Atlanta scored the first three goals of the game on backup Curtis Joseph and that was simply too big of hole to dig out of. Once the Leafs fell behind, Wilson shook up his top line and the decision paid immediate dividends.
Lee Stempniak, in his first game since arriving from St. Louis via trade, was paired with Antropov and Matt Stajan and the trio got the Leafs on the board at 7:31. Other than the assist he earned on that play, it wasn’t a memorable first game.
“I think we turned the puck over a little bit too much and that’s what they thrive on,” said Stempniak. “The way they play, the systems they play, they’re banking on turnovers and creating their offence off that.
“It seems like we played into that a little.”
The battle between Kovalchuk and White late in the second period provided a bit of a sideshow for the 19,297 fans in attendance, but it didn’t keep them occupied for long. The home crowd booed the Leafs for one of the first times all season.
The building was also half empty for much of the final 20 minutes. All in all, it was an ugly night.
“As players, we’ve just got to be ready,” said Hagman. “When you don’t battle, it doesn’t matter how well you play the system.”
There should be plenty of action in the coming days.
In addition to Burke’s expected arrival, Toronto is embarking on a busy stretch that will see it play seven times in 12 nights starting with Thursday’s game in Ottawa.
Notes: Joseph’s last regular season start for the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre was Feb. 26, 2002 … Zach Bogosian (leg), Kari Lehtonen (back), Boris Valabik (healthy) and Joseph Crabb (healthy) sat out for Atlanta … Toronto was without Mike Van Ryn (hand) and Jonas Frogren (arm) … Toronto hasn’t been outshot in a game since Oct. 17 … The Leafs entered the game with the NHL’s worst-ranked power play.