NEWARK, N.J. — In the long list of highlight-quality quotes issued by Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, this one still tops the list:
“Any day that you have to talk about not qualifying for the playoffs should be a kick right in the groin to everyone in the organization,” Burke said way back when. “I take it personally and professionally.
“This is a day that represents failure. My teams have been in the playoffs for seven straight years and (missing) ... it burns my butt.”
Yes, that was way back when, two springs ago when the streak of missing the playoffs hit a franchise record four times.
It’s up to six now and even Burke, who at the time referred to the post-season as “the yardstick, the first measure of success in our league,” must be starting to forget what it’s like.
Game 81 took place here against the Devils Wednesday — a tough one mentally for a team that rallied so gamely down the stretch — and not so much for the end result, a 4-2 loss.
The evening started out in sharp contrast to the emotion felt 24 hours earlier when the Leafs went down gamely in an electrifying shootout loss to the Capitals.
Who could blame them if they arrived at the Prudential Center indifferent about a date with the Devils, another Eastern Conference team left to play out the string?
Even with the mild surprise of rookie James Reimer back starting in net and the absence of centre Tim Brent because of injury, the fight that carried the Leafs through a meaningful March went missing early.
A power-play goal by Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk in the first was followed by two more in the second and games in back-to-back nights and the energy expended over the past six weeks appeared to finally catch up to them.
With not much happening in front of him, Reimer was given the third period off as Wilson sent J-S Giguere on in relief. And suddenly the Leafs summoned another dose of resiliency to make things interesting. A power-play goal by Phil Kessel, his 31st, and a short-handed effort by Tyler Bozak made things interesting until the Devils sealed it with an empty netter.
In some ways it’s tough to form a strong opinion about this team right now.
It’s certainly tough not to applaud the effort since the all-star break and there is no denying that the team will end this run with a much more positive outlook than in recent seasons.
Much has changed since last April, not the least of which was watching as the team went down with a fight rather than a shrug of the shoulders at the franchise’s new rite of spring.
Reimer not only won a lot of games, but won over his city and his teammates. The team is one Mikhail Grabovski score away from having three thirty-goal scorers and has given fits to just about every opponent down the stretch.
“I think people are really starting to see there’s a plan in place and the guys have had a chance to play together for a while now,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “From the standpoint of being here three years now, this is the most positive I’ve seen so far.”
That will generally be the spin the team puts on its own obituary and for the most part it will be accepted. But excuses and explanations are basically running on borrowed time now.
The first season under the Burke-Ron Wilson era, it was easy to issue a free pass. Burke didn’t arrive until mid-season and interim GM Cliff Fletcher had warned in a controversial but honest declaration prior to Game 1 that this team likely wasn’t to make the playoffs.
The 2009-10 season was doomed from the start with shoddy goaltending and a long October losing streak in which Burke continued to ship veterans he saw as baggage out of town.
Which brings us to the present, where the process of the second phase of the rebuild at least has created some optimism for the future.
The words have been forceful and so have the actions as Burke hasn’t been shy to make some moves either in his time here. But how much more can fans tolerate? Six years out of the playoffs and three under his term may well be the limit.