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New York Rangers left winger Brandon Prust (left) is hauled down by Toronto Maple Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski as he closes on goaltender Jonas Gustavsson during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday October 21, 2010.

Frank Gunn

If a fellow didn't know better, he could swear he stepped into a time machine instead of the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night.

There was a team in blue and white on the ice all right but it was standing around more often than not and surrendered two goals in 61 seconds in the first period, just like the 2009-10 edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The power play looked just like the 2009-10 version, too, a two-minute mélange of desultory play and bad decisions.

The fans were deathly silent, just like last season, or maybe, given the bi-polar nature of Leafs Nation, they were seized with the notion that all is lost after an all-to-brief brush with glory as the NHL season opened.

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Where, oh where was the team that zipped around the New York Rangers in Manhattan seven nights ago, winning the first of a home-and-home set? The one that Rangers head coach John Tortorella complained his Rangers "couldn't catch." Marvelled Tortorella at the time: "I can't believe they are that quick."

Well, coach, you're right. The Leafs aren't. At least not all of the time.

The Rangers came to Toronto and had no trouble skating with, ahead and around the Leafs for a 2-1 win despite the fact the visitors were missing star Marian Gaborik and centre Chris Drury.

But Leaf fans should not despair, just as they should not have exulted unduly when their heroes soared to a 4-0-1 record in their first five games. Last night's loss to the Rangers simply showed a truer picture of the Leafs. They remain a work in progress, a team that is not one of the best in the Eastern Conference but one that has the ability to challenge for the last couple of playoff spots if everyone works hard and there aren't too many injuries.

There was no evidence Thursday night of the speed that impressed Tortorella in the previous game because the Leafs did not bring their transition game. Nor did they bring their thinking caps, skating legs or any sign of passion.

Bad decisions with the puck were the order of the night, with the top two lines particularly guilty. In New York last week, the lines of Phil Kessel-Tyler Bozak-Kris Versteeg and Clarke MacArthur-Mikhail Grabovski-Nikolai Kulemin mesmerized the Rangers by working with the defencemen to turn the puck up ice and produce a scoring chance with three or four quick, crisp passes.

This time around, the defencemen stood around too much instead of making those quick passes and too often tried a long one to a forward impossibly far away. The forwards declined to work the corners in the offensive zone or go to the front of the net. Only the work of goaltender Jonas Gustavsson kept the score as respectable as 2-0 for the Rangers by the end of the first period.

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Grabovski, who played so well in the first game against the Rangers was back to his old tricks in this one. It seemed he had just two moves, handing the puck to a Ranger or unsuccessfully trying to carry it out of his own zone by himself. Bozak was AWOL as well.

By the last few minutes of the second period, Leafs head coach Ron Wilson started shuffling his lines. Centre Mike Zigomanis was promoted all the way from the fourth line to Bozak's spot on the first. Armstrong was given a shift or two on Grabovski's line and provided a spark as well as the Leafs' first goal in the third period.

Given the Rangers' injury problems and the excellence of Gustavsson, they were unable to run away with the game, leaving the Leafs a chance to pull it out in the third period. They gave it a decent try but for every odd-man rush they managed at Ranger goaltender Martin Biron, they gave up one the other way.

What the Leafs need to do is call it a learning experience and keep moving.

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