TORONTO – It didn’t take the Toronto Maple Leafs long to remind their fans about their many troubles.
Tobias Enstrom had two goals and two assists Monday as the Atlanta Thrashers downed the Maple Leafs 6-3 as the Air Canada Centre crowd once again booed, threw waffles on the ice and called for the firing of head coach Ron Wilson.
The Leafs were back on home ice after a three-game swing through Western Canada in which they dropped the last two games to Calgary and Vancouver.
The return to Toronto did little to reverse the their fortunes as the Leafs found themselves with a two-goal deficit before the game was three minutes old.
“We didn’t play well enough to win this game and the start killed us,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. “That’s where it started, it was uphill from there and we never could get back into it.”
Freddy Modin added two goals against his former team, while Anthony Stewart and Andrew Ladd, into an empty net, also scored.
Atlanta (19-11-5) vaulted past the Washington Capitals for first place in the Southeast Division. The surprising Thrashers have now picked up at least a point in 14 of its past 16 contests.
Mikhail Grabovski scored four the fourth game in a row as part of a brief third-period Leafs rally that ultimately fell short.
“We never quit,” Wilson said. “We had an incredible number of scoring chances. Our problem was basically the first shift for every line and every pair of defence was a disaster and we ended up down 2-0.”
John Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin also scored for Toronto (12-17-4), which has spotted opponents a lead too often this year, an especially troubling habit for a team that’s now 4-15-1 when surrendering the first goal.
“We just need better starts,” said Leafs forward Kris Versteeg. “That’s pretty much it. There’s no secret.”
Despite the fast start for the visitors, the game remained close through the halfway point, with Mitchell scoring his first of the season on a second-period Toronto power play to cut the lead to 2-1. But Modin’s second of the game came with just 56 seconds remaining in the middle frame, restoring the two-goal lead.Then things turned ugly.
A brutal turnover by Kulemin led to Stewart’s goal just over three minutes into the third and Enstrom picked up his second less than a minute later when a weak shot from the point eluded Jonas Gustavsson.
That led to Wilson pulling Gustavsson, who was beaten five times on 18 shots, in favour of rookie James Reimer, while fans serenaded him with a “fire Wilson” chant and frequent boos.
“That’s getting sickening,” said Toronto forward Clarke MacArthur of the fans’ reaction. “(The coaches) aren’t the ones out there in the first five minutes not skating. I’ve said it before with the systems and that, they’re as good as anybody’s. It’s about guys doing it.”
Added Phaneuf: “It’s not very pleasant to hear that chant or to be booed in your own building. As a player you don’t like to be booed in your own building, you don’t like to hear those kinds of chants. It’s tough to hear and tough to take.”
But the boos coupled with a four-minute high-sticking penalty to Enstrom with just over seven minutes to play seemed to spark the Leafs. Grabovski and Kulemin scored man-advantage goals just 15 seconds apart and Toronto continued to storm Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who had to be very sharp, until Ladd capped the scoring with the empty-netter.
“We actually could have tied the game up, believe it or not,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t looking good, but the two quick power play goals and, I don’t know, six or seven unbelievable chances after that that we didn’t finish. If we had one more with two or three minutes left I think we would have tied the game.”
Pavelec stopped 37 shots., while Reimer stopped all four shots he faced in the first action of his NHL career.
Modin opened the scoring when he was left all alone in front of Gustavsson, allowing him to tip home Ron Hainsey’s point shot.
The Thrashers’second goal came just 28 seconds later and was a power-play marker courtesy of Enstrom, who blasted home a cross-ice pass from Dustin Byfuglien on the blue-line.
Byfuglien ended the game with a pair of assists, giving him 35 points on the season. After being moved to defence from forward following an off-season from Chicago, Byfuglien leads all NHLblue-liners in scoring and is just one point off his single-season best.
“If I see a chance to jump up I can go and not worry about sticking to a plan,” Byfuglien said about being able to play both defence and forward. “I’m always going to have someone backing me up. They all know I’ve played forward and they all know I’m not afraid to jump up and go in front of the net on a rush.”
The Leafs, get a four-day break before their schedule resumes on Boxing Day in New Jersey. MacArthur believes the team can put the reprieve to good use.
“Get some rest. We obviously need it, the way we came out today,” he said. “We have to start with a clean slate in the second half…it’s unacceptable, the last few games.”
Notes: Kaberle drew an assist on Mitchell’s goal for the 500th point of his career. The Leafs reassigned tough guy Jay Rosehill to the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. Brett Lebda, typically a defenceman, played left wing on the Leafs’fourth line. Toronto doesn’t play again until Boxing Day, when it travels to New Jersey. Announced attendance was 19,301