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Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer, top, and Tim Connolly (12) look for the puck against Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass)
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer, top, and Tim Connolly (12) look for the puck against Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass)

Hockey

Maple Leafs sliding down a slippery slope Add to ...

For a moment, Ron Wilson was his cantankerous old self on Monday.

And given the question was in regards to the standings, it was hard to blame the Toronto Maple Leafs coach.

After all, his team has fallen from first overall five weeks ago into a tie for 12th in the NHL, dropping back into a pack of seven teams clustered between sixth and 12th in the Eastern Conference.

While the Leafs are at the top of that heap with 33 points, they’re also just three points from the bottom of the group heading into their meeting Tuesday with the last-place Carolina Hurricanes.

“Oh is it tight?” Wilson asked, sarcastically, of the standings. “Jeez, I didn’t know that. Course I’m cognizant [of that]

"Jeez. I coach the team. We’re in the NHL, so you know where you are. Every team is cognizant of that fact.”

The Leafs’ heady trip to first place was capped off with wins in back-to-back nights in early November, as victories in New Jersey and Columbus gave Toronto a 9-3-1 record for one of the franchise’s best starts in its history.

Staying on top, however, lasted all of two days, as the Leafs were blown out 7-0 by the Boston Bruins in their next game.

Since that point, they’ve won just six of 16 games, going 6-8-2 despite coming out on the right end of a couple 7-1 routs of their own.

In the 10 losses, the Leafs were outscored 43-16, a sign of how badly their goaltending and defensive play have laboured during a road-heavy stretch.

Toronto’s schedule isn’t particularly difficult for the rest of 2011, with three games against the East’s two worst teams – the Hurricanes and New York Islanders There seems to be a realization in the Leafs dressing room, however, that they need to pick up their play in those next nine games or risk frittering away all of the points they built up to start the season.

“We know the situation,” winger Colby Armstrong said. “We know where we are in the standings and we have to get points.”

“It comes in waves,” Wilson said. “You get hot for a couple weeks and you think you’ve cleared the gate. The next thing you know, you play .500 for a week and a half, three teams don’t lose any games and they’re right back in it.”

Wilson didn’t specify who precisely he was talking about, but the likes of the Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets have been slowly gaining on Toronto for weeks.

The Leafs’ six- and eight-point leads two weeks ago have been cut to just two and three, putting them in a group with three Canadian teams – including the Ottawa Senators – that will likely be fighting to make the playoffs the rest of the way.

If, as was the case last season, 93 points is what it will take to reach the playoffs, the Leafs still need to go 30-23-0 to get there.

With that in mind, Toronto has to step up for games like the one Tuesday and take the allegedly easy two points from a Carolina team currently mired in a season-killing 4-14-1 slide.

“We can’t take them lightly at all,” netminder James Reimer said. “It’s a fine line between winning and losing.”

These days, it’s also a very fine line between being bad and good, being the Leafs or the Hurricanes and being in or out of the postseason come April.

The standings, in other words, are often of little comfort to an NHL coach, wherever their team may be.

“It’s going to be a battle all the way, for the last 50 games,” Wilson said. “For all the teams that make the playoffs.”

Falling Leafs

GP

Pts

/82*

NHL rank

Nov. 3

13

19

120

1st

Nov. 10

16

21

108

3rd

Nov. 17

19

22

95

10th

Nov. 24

22

26

97

9th

Dec. 1

25

30

98

9th

Dec. 8

28

33

97

Tied 11th

Today

29

33

93

Tied 12th

*- 82-game point pace

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