The sound of the bell tolling on the Maple Leafs' season might have come in the form of three sharp pings last night.
On a day that yet another snow storm left the citizens of Toronto stumbling around in the quagmire, the Leafs spent the evening skating dumbfounded in the New Jersey Devils' end as goaltender Martin Brodeur got more than a little help from his metal friends.
Three times in the first period -- twice by Alexei Ponikarovsky and once by Nik Antropov -- the Leafs beat Brodeur but not the goal posts. They weren't withering attempts, either, as each chance was a hard shot that got past Brodeur cleanly.
In the end, Brodeur made 42 actual saves in a 2-1 Devils victory at the Air Canada Centre.
"Oh, yeah, it's hard," an exasperated Ponikarovsky said, tilting his head back and running his fingers through his hair. "I don't know. I was trying to shoot with whatever chance I had. Two posts in five, six minutes. Did not go in. A tough game."
Brodeur made 41 stops in a 4-1 Devils triumph at the ACC on Tuesday night. The Devils had not allowed 40 shots in any game this season until their two dates with the Leafs this week, yet won both.
The Leafs are in an ugly spot. The team they have to catch for the eighth and final playoff berth, the Philadelphia Flyers, defeated the New York Islanders last night and with 78 points, the Flyers are eight ahead of the Leafs. The Leafs have no choice other than to win both ends of a home-and-home set with the Flyers this week, and even if they do, it probably won't be enough. The Leafs have 12 games left in the regular season. You heard it here first, folks: No playoffs this year.
Fortunes appeared to have turned Toronto's way in the third period when Mats Sundin blasted a slapshot past Brodeur with just over six minutes to play during a Leafs man advantage. But with 48.3 seconds remaining, Zach Parise was credited with his second goal of the game when he jammed the puck under Vesa Toskala and into the net.
Less than 10 seconds were on the clock when Bryan McCabe teed up a slapshot, only to have Brodeur calmly kick the puck into the corner.
"I got in the slot, expected him to go down and he didn't," McCabe said. "He read it well and he made a good save. That's why he is one of the best to ever play.
"We need to win, but to lose like that, not even salvage a point, with 48 seconds left, it really stings."
McCabe was the goat on the Devils' first goal, as Jamie Langenbrunner simply wanted the puck more and shoved McCabe out of the way. Parise then buried a Langenbrunner rebound, a goal that came at 11:19 of the first period.
Brodeur, whose victory against the Leafs on Tuesday night moved him one game over .500 against Toronto in his career, could not have been more cool in the New Jersey net. There might not be an NHL goaltender who has more confidence in challenging shooters -- and given Brodeur's awesome career, why should there be? -- and Brodeur was up to snuff last night.
In the first period, Brodeur cut down the angle to stop blasts by Sundin and McCabe, and in the second, popped out past the lip of the crease to get a pad on a drive by Ian White. Those saves paled in comparison he made on McCabe in the dying seconds.
The Leafs had another great opportunity in the third period, but Darcy Tucker whiffed on a backdoor play during a Toronto power play. That play has been no more difficult than a two-foot putt for Tucker in the past, but largely it has disappeared this season.
"Any time you put up over 40 shots, you give yourself a good chance to win," Sundin said. "It's almost easier to explain when you lose 5-2. This one hurts."
The Maple Leafs' inability to hit something other than Martin Brodeur and the post with the puck in the opening 20 minutes did them in.
STAT OF THE GAME
Brodeur won his 532nd NHL game, putting him just 19 behind career leader Patrick Roy. The Devils have 13 games remaining, which means Brodeur should become the sport's most successful goaltender some time in October.
Fans were treated to a stirring rendition of the national anthem by former Big Sugar frontman Gordie Johnson, now in the band Grady, who played O Canada on his double-neck guitar. An appreciative crowd gave Johnson a lengthy ovation when he was done.
Darcy Tucker used to smack opponents around like he had bonuses in his contract for doing so, but he has not done it much lately. That changed in the first period when he crushed Johnny Oduya and Bryce Salvador against the boards, on the same shift, no less.