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Maple Leafs struggle to find win bracket on home ice

TORONTO - The home woes continue for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Leafs dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to the visiting Boston Bruins on Wednesday night for their fourth consecutive loss at Air Canada Centre. Overall, the Leafs are 8-11-4 when playing in Toronto this season; only the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning have fewer victories at home (7-8-7). And, to top it off, Toronto is 1-5-2 in its past eight games.

In other words, the NHL all-star break couldn't have come quickly enough.

"We have to play more like we did in the first two periods tonight," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who watched his team jump out to a 3-1 lead after 40 minutes only to surrender two power-play goals in the third period and ultimately fall short in the shootout.

"Simple, short, 10-foot passes and we need to play with some enthusiasm."

At 17-23-7, Toronto sits fourth in the Northeast Division and 12th in the Eastern Conference. If they want to have any chance at making the playoffs, the Leafs have to turn things around - and quickly - when the NHL resumes play next Tuesday after the all-star festivities this weekend in Montreal.

"We still have a chance," said defenceman Pavel Kubina. "We need to be better in February to get anywhere."

The Maple Leafs had a decent opening month to the 2008-09 season, sporting a record of 5-3-3 after beating the Rangers 5-2 on Nov. 1. But it's been a tough slog ever since they've won only 12 of 36 games with Toronto earning a reputation as a slow-starting team with limited offence and an inconsistent goaltender.

"Obviously we'd like to be in a better position right now," said defenceman Tomas Kaberle, the Leafs' lone representative at the all-star game. "We had a good first 15 games, but lately it's been up and down. We want to be somewhere in between, steady.

"It's a learning process, we have a young team, we have to continue to work hard and hopefully we'll do better that way."

Wilson agrees, but the no-nonsense coach was more pointed in his comments.

"Our better players have to perform better, not be minus magnets like they have been the past month," he said, likely referring to veteran Leafs such as linemates Nikolai Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky.

Antropov, a mainstay on Toronto's top line along with Ponikarovsky and centre Matt Stajan, hasn't scored in 15 games.

"He's just in a bit of a slump right now," Wilson said. "He probably has a lot of things on his mind."

As in the NHL trade deadline, on March 4?

"I think it affects some of our guys, some are more sensitive to that kind of thing than others," Wilson said. "And then you start squeezing your stick that much harder if you're not scoring."

In the meantime, the Leafs hope their strong effort in the early stages against Boston will be something they can build on after the break.

"There's a lot of good things to take from this game (against Boston)," said centre Dominic Moore. "We had some good offensive play, we had some good opportunities. It'll come."


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