RALEIGH, N.C. -- All the Bryan McCabe bashers out there couldn't wag an accusing finger at No. 24 for this collapse.
He wasn't even in the building, let alone the country.
In his absence, hand the official goathorns over to forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, whose meltdowns in the final moments of the game against the Carolina Hurricanes last night set the stage for arguably the Leafs' most devastating and heartbreaking loss of the season.
As the Leafs winged their way to Tampa last night after an inexcusable 3-2 overtime loss to the Hurricanes at the RBC Center, Ponikarovsky must have been slumped in his seat on the team charter wondering what might have been.
Too late now.
He had the chance to put away the game. The deal would have been sealed.
If only he hadn't waited.
The Leafs appeared to have the two points in the bag. They were up 2-0 in the game's final two minutes on goals by Boyd Devereaux and Tomas Kaberle, they seemed to be in control, and all seemed well.
Even when Cory Stillman narrowed the gap to 2-1 with 85 seconds left, there was no reason to come unglued.
Yet that's exactly what they did.
With Hurricanes goalie John Grahame on the bench, Ponikarovsky had the puck inside the Carolina blue line and the empty cage looming ahead of him.
"Put the puck in the net or put it in deep," a frustrated coach Paul Maurice lamented afterward. "Those are the only plays you can make in that situation."
Ponikarovsky did neither, opting to hold on to the puck instead.
Within the blink of an eye, the Hurricanes' Stillman stripped him from behind, causing Carolina to start back toward the Leafs end. Moments later, a Ray Whitney one-timer with just 27 seconds left on the clock beat hard-luck goalie Vesa Toskala, sending a game that should have been over into overtime.
The Leafs then found themselves back on their heels in extra time when Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov were sent off with minor penalties. The inevitable finally happened when Scott Walker tipped an Eric Staal point shot past the Leafs goalie for the winner with 32.6 seconds remaining.
In the end, the game never should have gotten to that point. And no one knew that better than Ponikarovsky, who agonized over his missed opportunity with the open net.
"It's just not acceptable to do this type of stuff," he told reporters after the game. "I should have put it in deep. I had the puck first. I should not have held onto it.
"I didn't know the guy was behind me."
Ponikarovsky's teammates did not single him out publicly by name, but it was obvious from their comments that they could not understand his actions -- or lack thereof -- in the game's final minutes.
"I thought we had this won, but we panicked after they got their first goal," defenceman Pavel Kubina said. "We had a couple of chances to shoot it in from the red line into the net and I don't know why we didn't do it."
Toskala, who singlehandedly kept the Leafs in the game by stopping 10 Hurricanes shots in the first four minutes of play, was equally bewildered.
"It's very disappointing," Toskala said. "We had a couple of bad decisions and it cost us the game."
A seething Maurice, meanwhile, was forced to mince his words about his team's meltdown, not wanting to digress into an obscenity-laced tirade "because it's so close to Christmas."
"This one was ours," he said.