Wild ride is over

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:16 AM ET

They sat there in the Maple Leafs plush players lounge, maybe a dozen of them -- Kyle Wellwood in sweats, Eric Lindros in a suit and Nik Antropov in a towel.

In an evening so fitting of a season that was at turns disastrous and spectacular, the Leafs learned they would not advance to the post-season by watching television last night.

They played great. They watched ... not so good.

No sooner had Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis beaten the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime than the Leafs filed out for home, officially eliminated.

A few minutes before, the Leafs had dominated the Ottawa Senators, pistol whipping them 5-1.

The evening was a perfect summary of a season that brought a five and seven-game losing streak as well as a current streak of 18 of 20 points gained.

Game over, despite a 40-32-8 record.

What went wrong: Everything and then, like last night, nothing at all.

The Leafs that played last night was the team general manager John Ferguson Jr. and coach Pat Quinn thought they had.

"You look at your talent, you watch how we run our practices and you think the intangibles with this team were pretty good," Quinn said.

Eighty games into the season, it remains impossible to get a line on the hockey club.

The Leafs bore no resemblance to the sad-sack outfit that lost the other seven matchups to the Senators. Go figure.

Last night was supposed to be simple: A quick shot to the heart, administered by a longtime rival that now can triumphantly step over the carcass. The fact that the torch from the Leafs to the Senators was to be passed on national television would have made the public evisceration even sweeter for every child, woman and man in the Ottawa Valley.

But it has been, remember, a most unruly season. Only when the season was written off --remember the swan dive three weeks ago in Montreal -- did the Leafs continue to click and last night they speedbagged the Senators playing without the injured Chris Phillips and truant goalie Dominik Hasek.

Leafs forward Matt Stajan, barred from the lineup twice in March, scored his fourth goald since he was excised from the lineup for one contest nine games ago. He now has 15.

Nik Antropov got another last night. Antropov has only two major failings as a player: He plays poorly when coming back from an injury and he gets hurt way too much. That said, he was solid last night.

Ian White, yanked from the Marlies blue line because of injuries, had an excellent game last night. White plays a poised, intelligent game. He is plus-four over 10 games.

Who knew that losing the rented talents of Lindros and Jason Allison would result in a smoother running offence?

Forced to go cold turkey without Ed Belfour, the Leafs were no longer hamstrung by the up-and-down performances caused by Belfour's bad back. The Leafs turned to Jean-Sebastien Aubin, a Marlies depth guy, to no ill effect. While the Leafs enjoyed a big margin in play in the first two seasons, Aubin was terrific when called upon.

But if you recognize the good, what about the bad?

Among the mysteries surrounding the Leafs was this one: How does a veteran club, especially one captained by the stolid Mats Sundin and coached by the savvy Quinn, play with wafer thin confidence?

"We often didn't get a night where we had 20 guys always going," Quinn said.

"No team has it every night but the teams we had here in Toronto had it more nights than not. This team in that January stretch, we disappeared. So I'm standing now lamenting."


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