Tampa bursts Leafs' bubble

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:50 AM ET

Leafs Nation now is in a state of elimination.

After one of the strangest seasons in club history, certainly the most disappointing overall in coach Pat Quinn's seven-year hitch, Toronto's bold bid to get back in the post-season hunt ended last night.

The late-blooming Leafs mulched their bitter rivals from Ottawa 5-1 last night, but on the dressing room TV, they watched a 3-2 overtime win by the Tampa Bay Lightning over the Carolina Hurricanes, giving the eighth-place Bolts an insurmountable four-point lead over the Leafs.

With two games to play, Toronto can't catch Tampa, which has the tiebreaker on wins. Atlanta remains three points back of Tampa.

"We're pretty sombre," forward Kyle Wellwood said as the Leafs dispersed from the room. "We'd start getting optimistic (during the streak) and then we'd look at the out-of-town scores.

"But when you're undefeated in 10 regulation games (18 of a possible 20 points and the first win in eight tries against the Senators this season), it means something. Guys like Jean-Sebastien Aubin and Matt Stajan have really stepped up."

Now the Leafs must deal with the stigma of 40 years without a Stanley Cup, an ignoble anniversary that will roll around next spring. By then, it could be a very different team, from the front office to the on-ice product.

"Were the last 10 games trickery?" wondered Quinn. "I don't know that right now. But I'm proud of this team. When they were in their (death) throes they were playing their hardest.

"We didn't make it in the end, and hopefully that'll never happen again here."

But Quinn might not be around next season, a question general manager John Ferguson refused to get into last night, with his own future not quite certain. Quinn was perplexed at how a team with Toronto's talent lost its mojo early in January and waited until it was almost too late to recover.

"Every time we tried to stop the bleeding this year, we couldn't," Quinn said.

With their spending curtailed by the salary cap, the Leafs had avoided big predictions about the Cup, expecting to finish in the 7-8 slot. But despite the late push -- this is the highest point Leafs team to miss the playoffs -- the club will be beating itself up all summer for squandering chances over 82 games that would've made up the four-point hole.

They lost division ground to Ottawa from opening night onward, still couldn't handle Buffalo, dropped key back-to-back games in Montreal last month and came up empty in seven of 10 shootouts. Out scored 40-14 by the Sens coming into the game, the Leafs struck barely a minute in on a Tomas Kaberle power-play goal, one of three by the Leafs on the night as they poured four past Ray Emery in the second period.

Second star Stajan showed why he will have a huge role on next year's club, breaking out of his checker's stereotype for good with his career high 15th goal, which stood as the winner. Wellwood had two assists, a beauty to set up Chad Kilger, while Mats Sundin scored as part of his 21 points in the past 10 games. Nik Antropov had the other Leafs goal, while Dany Heatley broke Aubin's shutout on the Sens' 25th shot of the night at 6:06 of the third.

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REPORT CARD

A+ Forwards: Now have had more than 100 shots on goal the past three games, with 11 goals in the past two outings.

A- Defence: Attention to detail against Ottawa is essential and the Leafs did not make it easy for the Sens to set up.

A Goaltending: Jean-Sebastien Aubin had what Ed Belfour could only dream of -- a night off against Ottawa.


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