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Maple Leafs facing first crisis of NHL season after five straight losses

The Toronto Maple Leafs' leading scorer was testy during practice Wednesday, and might as well have been wearing a "Beware Of Dog" sign on his chest as he stripped off his pads afterwards. A team slump can do that to a professional athlete, especially one who cares as much as Tucker, and the Leafs have only one shootout point to show for their last five outings.

On the other side of the dressing room, Andrew Raycroft was doing what goaltenders have done forever - trying to stay positive.

"We could what-if this to death," said Raycroft. "The reality is that we haven't been winning and we have to turn this around.

"I feel good. I'm working hard. That's all I can worry about - just try to do my part."

The Leafs get another chance in Boston on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET). It won't be easy. The Bruins won all of the last three meetings, and they are one of the hottest teams in the league right now. The only club colder than Toronto the last three weeks has been the St. Louis Blues, who are last overall.

Coach Paul Maurice defended Raycroft, who allowed five goals in the third period of the 5-2 home loss Tuesday to Atlanta.

"He has been very good to exceptional this year and I think we've been average in front of him," said Maurice, who barked loudly at the players during the drills.

The oft-injured Nik Antropov caught his right skate in a rut and turned on his ankle. The brittle Kazakh stayed behind for tests when his teammates flew to Boston.

Maurice shook up his lines - for the 2,443rd time - in his relentless search for offence that has waned since captain Mats Sundin returned to the lineup from an elbow injury.

Sundin was between Tucker and Jeff O'Neill, Kyle Wellwood skated with Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky, Mike Peca worked with Alex Steen and Matt Stajan, and John Pohl was with Chad Kilger and Bates Battaglia.

If Antropov can't go Thursday, Wade Belak will move up from defence or Alex Suglobov will get a rare opportunity to play.

It is no mystery, really, why Toronto is struggling. The Leafs are 22nd in the 30-team league in goals against. This stat does not reflect a goaltending weakness as much as it does mediocre team defence. The Leafs had the same problem last season when Raycroft wasn't a member of the team.

They can't or won't check to a standard required to be an NHL champion.

Even after going winless in five, outscored 21-7, they'd scored more goals than all but four other teams in the league. Offence isn't the big problem, it's defence.

"We knew from the start of the season that it was going to be a struggle to make the playoffs," said Sundin. "From third or fourth to 12th or 13th there's only about four or five points difference and that's how it's going to be all season.

"The biggest thing we have to make sure we do in the dressing room is to keep believing in ourselves and stick together as a group. There's going to be enough people who are going to doubt us and count us out all because of different things."

Sundin believes the Leafs are still very much a playoff team.

"Whatever teams that keep believing in what they're doing and believing in the group are the teams that are going to make the playoffs," he said. "And we certainly have a good enough group in here to make the playoffs.

"We all know we have to play better. We're just got to keep coming back and working hard. We had a good practice (Wednesday) and we have a chance to be a better hockey team (Thursday).

"We've shown we can beat any team in this league. There's nothing missing in the dressing room."

Third periods have been Toronto's weakest all season. Blown third-period leads have marred their last two losses, miring them in their slump.

"The good teams bounce out of it and get better from it," said Raycroft. "That's what we need to do here now."

Maurice wasn't stewing in his office.

"It's easy enough to walk around and swear at everybody, skate 'em real hard and go home," he said. "But you haven't really done anything.

"So, on days like (Wednesday), you go through the video, pick out things, you get out of your office and you go into the room and coach. It's a lot more comfortable just to wrap yourself in your anger and sit in (the coach's office) and grumble and point fingers.

"The harder part is to get out of your office and get into that (dressing) room and work at it and work at it and work at it because you know it's going to turn and when it does you need to be a better team.

"That's the key to all of this. Every team in the NHL goes through these things. The key is to be a better team. Boston did it at the start of the year. Atlanta went through a similar thing.

"It's a good bunch of guys in the room. They're conscientious."



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