Last shot sinks Leafs

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

The Maple Leafs ran out of horseshoes last night at 6:15 p.m., their season poke-checked into history by New York Islanders goaltender Wade Dubielewicz.

There are many things the Leafs Nation could point to for their team's failure to make the post-season.

They could blame the New Jersey Devils for failing to start goalie Martin Brodeur. But Scott Clemmensen played well enough for 65 minutes to be named an honourary Maple Leaf.

They could point the finger at more man-games lost to injury than any other team, as general manager John Ferguson did, or Sergei Brylin's lousy shootout attempt yesterday. Or, they could just admit that they weren't good enough.

"What a wild finish. It's going to take a little while to collect my thoughts," Ferguson said, obviously fighting the emotional demons.

"(Shootouts) are great for the fans but hard for managers and coaches. And, watching another team control your fate is doubly hard.

"It's disappointing. A lot of good things happened for us this year ... great play from the younger players. But, all that is lost on us at this point."

Truth is, their season never should have come down to sitting on a couch and hoping someone else could save the season for them. But there was Mats Sundin -- who admitted to "bouncing out of my chair and screaming" when the Devils scored in the final second last night to force overtime -- feeling the same agony, ecstasy and helplessness that Leafs fans had felt less than 24 hours earlier watching Toronto's 6-5 must-win over Montreal.

"When you're in these games, you don't even think (about losing)," Sundin said. "It's such a roller-coaster emotional ride for the fans that I'm just glad (when) I'm on the bench. When you're just watching a hockey game, you're exhausted at the end because you've got such an emotional involvement. At least when you're playing you've got a physical outlet and you've got some kind of control."

Yesterday, there was no control -- and they really have only themselves to blame.

"We can't complain about the Devils," Ferguson said, "We left it one point short and that's what came back to bite us."

They didn't so much lose their season yesterday as they lost it in 82 games blotched with inconsistencies and lack of urgency. An optimist will suggest, despite this, they missed out by only one point.

A pessimist can point to a dozen games where a cohesive effort would've got them that point: Like putting away the Islanders and their rookie netminder last Thursday instead of having a 5-2 meltdown. Like not blowing 4-1 leads to Buffalo. Like winning more than 10 of 25 games at home before the all-star break. None of those things were Clemmensen's fault.

Ferguson said he expected 10 games over .500 would get the team into the playoffs.

"We got to nine," he said.

Even as the bandwagon picked up over the past two weeks, there were suspicions that this was a team on borrowed time. They looked gritty one minute; gassed the next.

Front-line players such as Sundin (one goal in the last 20 games), Darcy Tucker (two goals the last 13), Kyle Wellwood (one in the last nine), along with slumps from young forward Alex Steen (0-for-13) and Matt Stajan (one goal the last 21 games) sealed Toronto's fate.

"We finished on a strong note and that relieves some of the bitterness. But in the end, it's still disappointing," Wellwood said. "We had some dry spells where we weren't moving fast enough and seemed to lag at times. I had a part in that, too."

On the plus side, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky had breakout years. Stajan and Steen had their moments and Wellwood established himself as a keeper. Andrew Raycroft remains enigmatic. Ferguson said one area the team must improve is its goal-against and he declined to speculate on his own future.

But one thing is certain: Wade Dublielewicz didn't steal the Maple Leafs' season. They gave it away.


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