It appeared things were looking up for the Toronto Maple Leafs not so long ago. December was supposed to be a promising month, especially with seven wins under their belts in the first two weeks.
Appearances are deceiving and those hopes have quickly changed.
The Leafs have now dropped four of their past five games after losing to the New York Islanders, 3-1, last night before a weak crowd at Nassau Veteran's Memorial Coliseum.
"These bumps are going to happen throughout the season," said Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, who wasn't happy with his team's inability to fore-check. "We never got our fore-check going until the last few minutes of the second period."
John Tavares's even strength goal with 7 minutes 43 seconds left in the second period was the eventual game-winner. He added to his team-high and NHL-rookie lead in goals (16) and points (28).
While the Leafs (13-17-8) and Islanders, who lost four of their previous five games, traded a handful of attractive scoring chances in the first period, it was Jon Sim who received the loudest rouse from the crowd when he jolted out of the penalty box with 13 seconds left and broke for the net.
Rookie goalie Jonas Gustavsson, playing in just his fourth game since a heart procedure earlier this month, slid on his left side to stop Sim's drive near the hash marks in front of the goal.
Sim, who was in the box for a holding penalty, had no chance once Gustavsson took any possible scoring angle away with his proactive approach to the play.
The Islanders (14-17-7) really came to life in the second period. Breaking the scoring silence, Trent Hunter recorded a power play goal at 10:47. After sliding past defenceman Mike Komisarek on the left circle, he fired a high shot that beat Gustavsson.
"I didn't see when he shot the puck," Gustavsson said. "I lost it."
Seconds later, the Leafs nearly tied the game, but Jason Blake used a high stick to tap the puck over both his and Islanders goalie Dwayne Roloson's shoulders - and the goal was waved off.
Tavares scored his goal when Islanders forward Blake Comeau carried the puck down the right side of the ice, through three Leafs defenders, drew Gustavsson away from the net and on his back. Comeau fed the puck through the crease, behind Gustavsson, for an open Tavares.
At 18:04 of the third period, Niklas Hagman scored his team-leading 16th goal of the season after standing in traffic next to Roloson and dumping a pass from Tomas Kaberle into the net. Mikhail Grabovski also assisted on the goal.
With 34.9 seconds left in the game, Comeau broke lose and was wide-eyed skating toward an empty Maple Leafs net, but was hooked by Leafs defender Jeff Finger on his approach. As a result, he was awarded the goal and the Islanders were guaranteed victors.
Wilson made it a point to call out Matt Stajan and Phil Kessel in his postgame news conference, saying their names in particular when mentioning the team's lack of fore-checking.
"Stajan and Phil weren't skating," he said.
Both Stajan and Kessel were displeased with the team's performance, too.
"This is a letdown going into the short break [for Christmas]" Stajan said. "We have to regroup."
Said Kessel, "I'm not playing very well. I'm getting chances. I'm just not burying them."
The Maple Leafs are off until Saturday when they play host to the Montreal Canadiens.
Special to The Globe and Mail