TORONTO - Welcome back to Leafs Hibernation.
It’s officially ‘see you in September’ yet again, a team-record seven years of missing the playoffs and counting. The Leafs were officially eliminated from the race by the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, a 3-0 loss, which also extended a franchise record 10th straight defeat at the Air Canada Centre, in one of those lacklustre efforts that plagued Toronto after Feb. 6.
If the Florida Panthers make the playoffs next month, the Leafs will be tagged with the longest consecutive skunk in the NHL. No wonder it didn’t take long for the booing to start up again Tuesday and to be ringing in the Leafs’ ears at the final horn.
For coach Randy Carlyle, it’s a new and disheartening experience, for leading scorer Phil Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf, it’s getting to be habit.
“As an organization, it’s very disappointing right now,” said Kessel, who has 36 goals, but just three in the past 10 games. “Obviously the fans are frustrated and the players are more frustrated.
“I’m struggling to score. We play to make the playoffs and try to win the Stanley Cup and it doesn’t matter if you have a good individual season or not. We’re trying and nothing’s going right. Little mistakes become big mistakes and it’s tough right now. It’s not good.”
Toronto still has five games to go in a schedule that on Feb. 6 looked like it would yield at least eighth-place for long-suffering fans. And even though the loss represented 19 in the past 24 games, those final five might be the hardest for motivation with fans openly cheering for them to drop lower in the standings for a better June draft pick.
“You start every year with the goal of winning (the Cup) and the first part of that is making the playoffs,” said Phaneuf. “To be out of that race is not a very good feeling. It’s very disappointing for our group from where we were (in early February) and the slide we went on.”
The Leafs did fall further into 13th in the East after entering play tied with Carolina at 75 points. Just to rub it in, two discarded Leafs scored for the ’Canes, Tim Brent and Jay Harrison. The latter’s high floater on the first rush of the second period on Jonas Gustavsson had Carlyle signalling furiously for emergency farm call-up Jussi Rynnas. The 6-foot-5 Finn made 10 saves but Cam Ward had an easy 21st career shutout and second against the Leafs.
The announced sellout at the Air Canada Centre had some notably empty patches as many subscribers stayed home. Scalpers were loitering outside the building like lonely Maytag repairmen.
Gustavsson did manage eight saves before the Leafs lost too many one-on-one battles leading to a Jussi Jokinen goal.
“We didn’t have a lot going for us,” Carlyle said, “I used the term “(flatter than) pee on a plate, but in more vulgar terms. We allowed the opposition to dictate the transition game and it sucked a lot of life out of us.”
Jokinen eluded Grabovski and got off a backhand that glanced off of Cody Franson’s stick. The rattled Monster who then allowed a Brent goal under the crossbar and another to Harrison in similar fashion.
Carlyle did try some other experiments on Tuesday, such as putting Grabovski at centre for Kessel and shifting Tyler Bozak to left wing.
Unlike the past six years, when the Leafs were mostly awful in the first half of the season and raised hopes with strong play after the all-star break, this has been a long and painful six-week skid. Few bright spots have presented themselves for next year, outside of defenceman Jake Gardiner and forward Matt Frattin.
“This is the group we have,” defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said. “We can’t ask for anyone to come in here and be Jesus.”
But GM Brian Burke has to try and hit a home run in free agency this summer in what’s supposed to be an average crop. And he needs prospects such as Frattin, Nazem Kadri, Carter Ashton and Joe Colbourne to take another step. Otherwise, he’ll need Carlyle to remake a lot of the current veteran players to his rough-and-ready preferences.