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Leafs searching for answers after losing third straight

The Canadian Press

1/9/2010 11:33:59 PM

TORONTO -- The slide continues for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Leafs lost their third game in a row -- and fifth in six outings -- when they fell 4-1 to the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night. Toronto is just 3-8-2 in its past 13 contests, after going 9-3-2 from Nov. 19 to Dec. 14 to climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Despite the losing skid, coach Ron Wilson accentuated the positive after the game against Pittsburgh.

"We have to stick with what we're doing," Wilson said. "I'm happy with our effort and we're playing with a lot of energy."

However, the Leafs coach recognized an obvious problem that has been a major factor in his team's inability to win of late.

"We're not finishing," said Wilson, whose team outshot Pittsburgh 43-39 and leads the NHL with 34 shots per game. "We're getting offensive chances, but we're not finishing.

"Phil (Kessel) is obviously snakebitten. He hit a goalpost tonight, and (Pittsburgh goalie) Marc-Andre Fleury made an unbelievable save on a rebound . . . I don't even know how he made that save."

The Leafs have scored more than two goals just three times in the past 13 games -- three goals twice and four goals once. Toronto hasn't been shut out during the 13-game slump, but they've been held to one goal four times and two goals on another six occasions.

"We have to pump up the attack," Wilson said. "We're not a natural goal-scoring team . . . We have to work really hard to score goals."

Kessel, the Leafs' lone legitimate sniper, recorded an assist on centre Matt Stajan's goal against Pittsburgh, but the left winger has just one goal and two points in his past 12 games. By comparison, Kessel scored 13 goals and 21 points in his first 21 games as a Leaf.

Stajan has collected a goal in back-to-back contests, but that comes on the heels of a 12-game power outage. Niklas Hagman leads Toronto with 16 goals in 45 games, but has just one goal in his past 14 contests. And Alexei Ponikarovsky -- denied a penalty shot against Pittsburgh after video review showed that the Penguins' Sergei Gonchar had scored a goal earlier in the sequence -- has 15 goals on the season, but just two in his last dozen games.

Add it all up, and the Leafs' four leading goal-scorers on the season have combined for just six goals in 52 man-games. No one else has stepped up to fill the scoring void.

"It's not for lack of effort," Stajan said. "We're working hard, but we're not getting any goals. We've got to find a way to score some goals."

Part of the problem has been Toronto's special-teams play. The Leafs entered the game against Pittsburgh with just three power-play goals in their past 37 opportunities.

The penalty kill was even worse, with opponents racking up 12 goals on their past 21 chances against Toronto. Against Pittsburgh, the Leafs went 1-for-4 on the power play, and killed off two of three Pittsburgh advantages.

"We need to be better on the penalty kill," said defenceman Ian White. "It was a little better tonight, but we still gave up one."

With 37 games remaining in the regular season, the Leafs sit 14th in the East, ahead of only the NHL's last-place club, the Carolina Hurricanes. But the players believe they can qualify for the post-season if they can get on a roll.

"You play so many games, if you have a cold week, it's tough," White said. "You might play four games in a week and if you go cold, it can be bad. But we're going to work our way through it.

"There's so much hockey left and we're not a quitting group here. There are so many games left, we need to scratch and claw and get those points."

Stajan, who has scored two of Toronto's last three goals, agreed.

"In hockey, you need to get results," he said. "And right now, we're not getting the wins. We just have to find a way to turn it around."