April 5, 2011
Leafs eliminated from playoffs
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - The Maple Leafs' unlikely playoff chase is through.
Now it's six months off to use the lessons of 2010-11 for a legitimate run at a playoff spot with a deeper team and not just another of their recent late-season teases.
Taking the Washington Capitals to overtime Tuesday night in an eventual 3-2 shootout loss became meaningless when the Buffalo Sabres held off Tampa Bay down the QEW to ensure the Leafs could not get to eighth place.
"I saw that score out of the corner of my eye," said goalie James Reimer, who faced the out-of-town scoreboard, when not dealing with 41 Caps shots in 65 minutes and four more in the shootout. "I didn't know if I saw it right and I didn't want to look again.
"We could've packed it in right there, the season's over and said 'screw this, the season's over'. But that showed a lot of character on our part tonight that we controlled the overtime. It showed a lot about our team and I'm proud of the guys."
The loss sidelines the Leafs a sixth straight spring, but this time there's reason to believe it wasn't a blip when the playoff pressure was off.
Credit Toronto's effort the past nine weeks with a number of players who will be here again in 2010-11, instead of fading away in the summer. After going into the all-star break on a three-game losing streak, still bleeding from an eight-game winless dive and 13 games below .500, they emerged Feb. 1 as a new team that ran up a record of 18-7-6.
"In the end, we'll feel good about this and we'll build on this," said coach Ron Wilson, "all the experience we gained playing in hard games."
It was a young team that reacted well to a pressure cooker of must-win games night after night, with many of the players who'd been quiet in the first half coming to life. However, after Oct. 30, the Leafs were never in the top eight in the East again. The strong push needed help from a train wreck up ahead, but they didn't get as much as a signal delay. Buffalo, Carolina and the Rangers barely slowed down, preventing the Leafs from catching up. Unfortunately, it's an old story for the Leafs, everyone digging hard at the end, but the hole being too damn deep.
Wilson refused to "conduct an autopsy" on the whole season, with two games to play, Wednesday in New Jersey and Saturday at home against the Habs.
Reimer, who was the catalyst for much of the new-found confidence, went through the first half of the game against the Cup-contending Caps giving up a goal on 16 shots, that on a 5-on-3. But after Joffrey Lupul's eighth point in seven games, John Erskine's swipe at a rolling puck hit Luke Schenn and banked in. Still Reimer wouldn't yield, as he and penalty killers Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Joey Crabb and Tyler Bozak successfully defended a two-minute minor without a break to keep it 2-2 into the third.
Reimer had two big ovations in that last period. His .922 save percentage was listed on the videoboard as the best by a Leaf in the 30 years since the stat has been kept, and another on a diving save on Marcus Johansson, with back-up J-S Giguere banging his blocker on the glass in unison. Wilson, with his own people keeping him abreast of the Buffalo score, was ready to pull Reimer in the tie game in the last five minutes of regulation before the Sabres secured their 4-2 win.
It's quite possible Wilson goes to Giguere in Jersey.
As they have done since the all-star beak, the Leafs were not intimidated by a team 20-plus points ahead of them in the standings, taking the game right to the Caps. Washington came in with seven regulation losses since
Feb. 1, as many as the Leafs in that span.
The Leafs struck first with Nikolai Kulemin stepping into his 30th of the year, the second Leaf after Phil Kessel to get that many.
But Alex Ovechkin, with his 23rd goal in 23 games against the Leafs, scored on the two-man advantage, amid 20 minutes of breaking two sticks. Ovechkin was one of three Caps to be foiled by Reimer in the shootout before Mike Knuble won it.
Toronto has reached a four-year high in points (85 and counting) and can still catch ninth-place Carolina to improve its draft position. Tuesday's result also enabled the Leafs to finish ahead of the 11th-place Atlanta Thrashers, jumping them at least five places from last year.