DETROIT — Nothing official, yet.
But it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to let the coroner know a call should be coming soon.
The Maple Leafs on Saturday night failed to put the final touches on what would have been a perfect trip and as such their playoff hopes are close to dead.
Jiri Hudler of the Detroit Red Wings scored early in the third period at Joe Louis Arena, sticking the fork deeper into the Leafs’ post-season aspirations and giving the Wings the winning goal in a 4-2 victory.
The Buffalo Sabres beat the New Jersey Devils 2-0 on Saturday night, and there’s no sympathy in a playoff race, as the Leafs harshly learned in a 24-hour span. They arrived in Detroit from Denver feeling good about themselves after a pair of large road wins, and were three points behind the Sabres for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
Now, they are seven points back, with the Carolina Hurricanes in between, and have just six games left.
The Leafs and Sabres are off until Tuesday, when they clash at the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs will be mathematically alive if they don’t win that game, but don’t worry, it won’t matter.
Still, until last rites, the Leafs cling to hope.
“Close is not good enough, and it’s a big loss in the standings, but we have to respond now,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We have to take care of business and we didn’t do that. It’s a tough race, and a very disappointing loss.”
The Leafs looked to be shaping up for another dramatic victory when Joffrey Lupul scored at 6:11 of the third to tie the game 2-2. He fell on goalie Jimmy Howard as he scored (forcing Howard to leave with a shoulder injury), and after brief meeting involving the on-ice officials, the goal stood.
But the Wings aren’t one of the best teams in the National Hockey League by way of luck and accidents. The Leafs spoke before the game of not making dumb decisions since they knew the Wings could capitalize.
That’s what happened less than a minute after Lupul scored. Nikolai Kulemin made an errant pass in the neutral zone, and it was picked off by Henrik Zetterberg, who passed to Hudler.
A shot that James Reimer said “dipped” wound up being the winner at 6:49.
Nazem Kadri had the other Toronto goal.
It wasn’t just a bad Kulemin pass that got the Leafs in trouble. Joey Crabb and Lupul both were assessed needless hooking penalties, and the Wings scored on both opportunities, going 2-for-2 with a man advantage. The Leafs were 0-for-4 on power plays.
“That’s indicative of the kind of team they are,” Lupul said. “We make an errant pass and they hit a guy with speed, and he comes in and makes a great shot. The best capitalize on those.”
Despite the fact they’re in different conferences, and play only once against each other, the Leafs/Wings rivalry has plenty of pop. The atmosphere at Joe Louis Arena was electric, with thousands of Leafs fans part of the Wings’ 19th consecutive sellout. When Detroit supporters chanted ‘Let’s go Red Wings,’ it immediately was followed by screams of ‘Go Leafs go.’ The building rocked all night, and there were a few surreal moments — none more than when the theme song of kids’ program ‘Bob the Builder’ played as an ornery scrap broke out in the corner stands.
Good thing fans won’t let rivalries such as this one die while Gary Bettman and the NHL wonder how to keep teams in hockey hotbeds such as Phoenix, Atlanta and Sunrise, Fla., among others.
“We just have to look forward to playing Buffalo on Tuesday,” Reimer said. “That’s another huge playoff game and the only one we can worry about.”