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Leafs bottom out in New York Add to ...

If there was any lingering doubt about the Toronto Maple Leafs’ meagre playoff hopes this season, this was the end of that cheery talk, an emphatic exclamation point added to the early demise of their 2010-11 season.

They’re dead all right – and after only 45 games.

The Leafs were routed on Wednesday night, plain and simple, pounded 7-0 by a New York Rangers team that, even while playing through several key injuries, is far better built for the postseason than any recent Toronto team.

In a season full of losses, this was the ugliest of them all, one where there was plenty of blame to go around.

And it started early.

After the Leafs went scoreless on two early power plays, it was all New York, as the Rangers scored four times in a five-minute span midway through the first period to chase Jonas Gustavsson from the goal in favour of Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

Giguere didn’t fare much better, allowing one goal on three shots, and Gustavsson was back in goal to start the second as he laboured through the final 40 minutes.

The goals against, however, were a collective effort, the result of the usual foibles for the Leafs: bad turnovers, bad goaltending and a tendency to wilt when the going gets tough.

“It was just snowballing tonight,” said Leafs defenceman Francois Beauchemin, whose glaring turnover led to one early goal. “Every mistake we were making ended up in the back of the net.”

“Our defence got overwhelmed in the first period and basically the game was over at 4-0,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “I don’t have any idea [why that happened]. We stopped skating. They beat us to every loose puck in our zone.”

Wilson had talked before the game about a need to head into next week’s all-star break on a high, winning three or four of the five games leading up to it in order to make a dent in the 12-point gap between Toronto and eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

That plan is only a pipe dream now, however, with four opponents that are likely playoff-bound in the next six nights and the Leafs’ fragile confidence already shot.

Instead, it’s time to look toward next season, beginning with the trade deadline on Feb. 28.

“You just move on,” Wilson said. “That’s what you have to do.”

Gaborik nets four

The game was one to remember for Rangers sniper Marian Gaborik, who opened the scoring 11 minutes in by converting on a beautiful 1-on-1 deke in tight on Gustavsson and continued to terrorize the young goaltender with three more goals the rest of the night.

At least two of the tallies were weak ones, including a back-breaking 5-0 goal that came from a bad angle and somehow slipped through Gustavsson’s pads.

“I’d play it the same way and 99 times out of 100 I’d stop it,” Gustavsson said. “I guess it was one of those days."

A return to form for Gaborik would certainly be welcome for the Rangers, who learned earlier in the day that top scorer Brandon Dubinsky would be out three to four weeks with a stress fracture in his leg.

Gaborik had only 11 goals in 33 games this season coming in, including none in his last eight games and only three in his last 19.

“It is a big challenge for me and everybody here,” Gaborik said. “A lot of guys need to step up, including myself. We have had a lot of injuries this year. We can’t make excuses. We have to keep it up and go with whoever we have in the lineup.”

Monster mashed

Expected to be improved this season, the Leafs goaltending has instead proven a major weakness, one getting more pronounced as Gustavsson unravels in the crease.

The lanky goalie known as The Monster now has a 3-7-0 record, 4.14 goals-against average and .861 save percentage in his last 10 starts dating back to being pulled from a 5-0 loss against the Edmonton Oilers at the start of December.

“It was not the game I wanted to play tonight,” Gustavsson said. “Seven to nothing, of course I’m not happy with that.

“I know for myself that I can play good at this level. I know our team is good, too. It’s just about keep going hard and you never know. Sooner or later those games are going to come where you feel good and you get those pucks on you and you have a couple good games in a row.

“Of course you’re not happy right now, that’s the way it is in hockey. It’s ups and downs and you try to keep the downs short and the ups longer. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”

While the team in front of him was to blame on several occasions on Wednesday, the 26-year-old Swede has completely lost his confidence in the past two months – as his teammates have lost it in him – and at this point looks as though he would benefit from time in the minors.

One issue facing Leafs general manager Brian Burke, however, is the fact Gustavsson is under contract next season and will have to clear waivers on the way down and up from the Toronto Marlies.

(Whether or not he would be claimed is debatable at this point, but it’s unlikely the organization goes to extreme measures with a fragile player quite yet.)

Toronto can, however, opt to carry three goaltenders, bringing back up rookie James Reimer – who had a promising six-game audition earlier this month – and giving him a chance to continue his strong play.

Interestingly enough, the Marlies have continued to carry three goaltenders since Reimer was sent back down, a rare move for a developmental organization that aims to get playing time for everyone and a clear sign that his recall may not be that far away.

At this point, there’s little reason to continue to subject Gustavsson to this type of punishment until he can rediscover his game.

 

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