Habs win, Leafs spin their wheels

Maple Leafs Mikhail Grabovski battles for the puck with Montreal Canadiens Jaroslav Spacek during...

Maple Leafs Mikhail Grabovski battles for the puck with Montreal Canadiens Jaroslav Spacek during their game at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on April 9, 2011. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:17 PM ET

TORONTO - It was playoff weather in Toronto on Saturday, the sun still up when the puck dropped between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens.

There were light jackets in evidence and lots of ball hockey on the streets. A season-high crowd of 19,676 at the Air Canada Centre waved souvenir towels and lapped up thousands of dollars in prizes on fan appreciation night, while the Original Six rivals delivered an entertaining game below.

But it’s the Habs who are moving on, while the Leafs move out. Maple Leaf Square, designed to host a playoff tailgate-type party is still unconsecrated ground.

Toronto’s 4-1 loss ends the season with a record 37-34-11, an 11-point improvement on last year, but not clearing the 90 barrier. The Leafs can kick themselves until they bleed about missing the playoffs this year, the greater lament is lost time.

Every year they spin their wheels gives some other wannabe contender in the Eastern Conference a chance to re-fit their own leaky boat. And you know that seven other sidelined teams won’t sit around all summer and let Brian Burke plot their downfall.

Carolina was a 91-point also-ran with a future all-star in Jeff Skinner, New Jersey’s fall was likely an aberration and Atlanta and Florida have good men at the top, too, and will bloom eventually. Ottawa will have a new coach after canning Cory Clouston on Saturday and hey, even the New York Islanders are bound to get it right one of these days.

For the eight teams that are moving on, maybe the New York Rangers have dubious credentials, but all will be hard to knock off next autumn, no matter what transpires in the next few weeks.

“If we’d got that opportunity, we could have done quite well if we’d got in,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We’ll take everything we’ve learned from this, not just the good stuff down the stretch, but (the bad start).”

As is often the case with the Leafs, the team that finished Saturday bore little resemblance to the one trotted out in early October that beat Montreal amid a four-game jump and then fell in another deep hole. The Leafs were not in eighth place after Oct. 30 and finished 10th overall. Yet there is something tangible to build on this time.

“Our defence is bigger and more mobile,” coach Ron Wilson said. “Not tonight because they had one of their worst games of the year, but there’s a lot of positives with the way they handled the stretch drive when the points were just as big for the other team as they were for us. Keith Aulie showed us a lot.

“We’ve been small up the middle and now all of a sudden it looked completely different when you had someone such as Joe Colborne. I don’t know if you can say he will be ready for next year, he has to get himself stronger, but you never know. He’d have to completely out-play the other guys, but he has a bright future.”

You can also twist the argument that the conference might never be as wide open again. Philadelphia and Montreal ended last season not much different than Toronto, once it found some goaltending and identity. They played giant killer throughout the spring.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Cliff Fletcher-Pat Burns revival, a check of the books shows very few teams, outside of Pittsburgh and New Jersey, stuck around very long at the top. Carolina and Tampa Bay seized the moment and won Cups. Ottawa, Florida, Buffalo and Wilson’s Washington Capitals at least made the finals. No team, East or West, repeated as Cup champ since the ‘97 and ‘98 Wings.

The salary cap era has enhanced that wildcard scenario, though the Leafs spent the first few years trying to untangle themselves from onerous contracts and the ensuing years trying to re-stock the draft cupboard.

Bottom line, every team but Florida has made the playoffs in the six years Toronto has idled.

“It’s upsetting the way we finished, but you have a lot of young guys who are coming in,” winger Clarke MacArthur said. “We don’t want to be the bubble team next year, we want the secured spot. If we played as well in the first half as the second half, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Toronto ended what had been a strong second half with a three-game losing streak. James Reimer let an iffy five-hole goal through by Ryan White at 2:29 of the first period Saturday and a pair of Brian Gionta power play goals took care of the rest. It was a terrible game all around for the special teams, with several odd-man chances off Toronto’s power play, Tomas Plekanec cashing the fourth goal short-handed.

Mikhail Grabovski was denied his 30th, but Phil Kessel netted No. 32 and almost 33 before losing a close goal-line video review. Drawing an assist on the first Kessel goal was Leaf centre Colborne, though Matt Frattin, the other debuting rookie had the stronger game on the wing.

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