Leafs go to Atlanta desperately in need of a win to silence their critics

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Win a few and the negativity that has been building around the Toronto Maple Leafs will vanish into thin air. That's head coach Paul Maurice's view. He hasn't lost his sharp wit even though his team has picked up just one point in its last four games and has just one victory in its last eight.

"There's been some criticism?" he replied when asked how he's coping with the negative reports in the hockey-mad city.

It was a typical response from a man who, along with GM John Ferguson, walks a career tightrope.

"That's part of how I cope," Maurice said after practice Wednesday.

All he can deal with is what happens in the coaches' room, the trainers' room and on the ice, he added.

"The other parts of it are bound to happen when you're not winning," Maurice said. "The simple answer is, and mentally it's how I cope, you just win and all of this will disappear."

The Leafs play in Atlanta on Thursday and are back home against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

Darcy Tucker, who took a shot off a foot during the 4-3 shootout loss to Montreal on Tuesday, didn't practise but will probably suit up against the Thrashers. Alexei Ponikarovsky, who didn't skate against the Habs because of an unspecified leg injury, also skipped practice and will be assessed after the morning skate. Jiri Tlusty, who has missed two games after banging up a shoulder last Friday, won't be back until the weekend at the earliest.

The Leafs were 27th overall with 22 of a possible 50 points as they headed for the airport. They were tied with Washington with a league-low eight wins. Yet, a winning streak would lift them back into contention.

"It's a fine line between second-last and even last and seventh place (in the East)," said forward Matt Stajan. "You have a couple of good weeks and string some wins together, you're right back in it.

"We know that we have the capability to do that. The thing is, we've got to go do it. We can't just keep saying we have the ability to do it. We've got to go out and do it. That's what's we're trying to do right now."

What has become clear is that the makeup of the lineup is unsuited, thus far, for the shootout era. Toronto is 7-17 since the introduction of shootouts. Goaltender Vesa Toskala is 0-7 in his career.

A destrctive December did the Leafs in last season. A November nosedive might doom them this season.

"There's a lot of hockey left to be played but we can't start in January or February," said forward Alex Steen. "It needs to start right now and we're all aware of that."

Jason Blake has only two goals to show for 110 shots on goal this season. He scored 40 last season for the Islanders, but he hasn't been able to buy a goal.

"To be honest, I have no idea right now," he said. "I'm searching as much as I possibly can to figure out what's going on."

His leukemia hasn't been a factor, he said. He's feeling fine.

"I'm sure they're disappointed," he said, referring to Ferguson and the other execs who had high expectations he'd fill nets with pucks skating alongside Mats Sundin. "They bring me in to score goals and I'm not getting it done."

Blake hasn't scored since Oct. 18.

"I have to stay positive and keep my chin up and keep working hard," he said. "That's about all I can do.

"Maybe do the little things, play good defence, and hopefully one will go off my head or something. I don't know."

Neither does Nik Antropov.

"Inside the dressing room, everything is fine," says the big Kazakh centre. "I don't know what's going on."

Antropov had a strong start to the season but hasn't scored since Nov. 6.

"I'm being hard on myself and thinking about it, which is not good," he said.

Meanwhile, Maurice waits for the wins that would mute the team's critics. He liked what he saw Tuesday - except the final score.

"We competed really hard and worked hard and that's always the foundation and backbone of winning hockey games," he said.

If the losing continues, Maurice and Ferguson are as good as gone, but win in Atlanta and . . . poof.



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