The final curtain is poised to fall on the Maple Leafs' playoff hopes -- if it hasn't crushed them already.
Having lost yet another top scorer and a key divisional matchup in the same night, the Leafs pretty much need a miracle to avoid missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
With a groin strain causing captain Mats Sundin to miss his first game of the season last night, the hosts were dealt another early blow when forward Nik Antropov hobbled to the dressing room early in the first period of the Northeast Division showdown against the Buffalo Sabres at the Air Canada Centre.
With both Antropov and Sundin on the shelf, the undermanned Leafs, playing without their top two point producers, tried to put up a valiant fight before finally succumbing by a 6-2 margin, a score that did not reflect how tight the contest was through the first 50 minutes.
Of course, there are no style points handed out in a playoff race, meaning the Leafs find themselves in dire straits this morning in the quest for a post-season berth.
The Leafs now must win all of their remaining nine regular-season games to reach the 92-point plateau, which in each of the past two seasons was the minimum total required by an Eastern Conference team to squeeze into the post-season.
"We probably have to run the table, plus get some help," summarized defenceman Ian White.
Antropov was lost for the remainder of the game with a knee injury, an ailment with which the hard-luck forward is far too familiar. He has undergone reconstructive surgeries on both knees since being selected 10th overall by the Leafs in the 1998 entry draft, a major reason why he has missed 203 of the 647 NHL games he has been eligible to play since entering the league.
"He's day to day," emotionally drained coach Paul Maurice said. "We'll probably know more (tomorrow) once the swelling goes down."
Maurice is crossing his fingers that both Sundin and Antropov will be back in the lineup Tuesday against the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum, but neither player is guaranteed to return at this point.
The Leafs and Sabres, two teams who entered the game on the outside of the playoff hunt looking in, already found themselves behind the 8-ball before they even took to the ice, thanks to the outcome of the afternoon contest between the seventh-place Boston Bruins and eighth-place Philadelphia Flyers.
That game turned into one of those cursed three-point contests when the Bruins tied the score in the final minute, then won 3-2 in overtime on a goal by defenceman Aaron Ward.
With the two points for the victory, the Bruins remain in seventh with 82 points, while the single point for the overtime loss kept the Flyers in eighth with 80.
The ninth-place Sabres moved to within one point of Philadelphia with 79 points, with the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers deadlocked for 10th at 76.
The Leafs? With 74 points, they are now six points behind the Flyers with nine games to go, leaving them mired in 12th spot in the East.
After a Jiri Tlusty goal at 7:29 of the third period pulled the Leafs to within 3-2 of the visitors, the Sabres blew the game open with goals from Jason Pominville and Daniel Paille.
Showing just how desperate these times are in Leafland, Maurice then pulled goaltender Vesa Toskala with about five minutes remaining and his team down by three goals.
Sabres defenceman Henrik Tallinder welcomed the move, sliding the puck into the empty Toronto net to seal the deal.
And, perhaps, the Maple Leafs' season in the process.
Ian White's goal tied the score 1-1 at 13:39 of the first period but the Sabres took the lead right back just 45 seconds later when Jochen Hecht, standing in the slot, redirected Jason Pominville's passout from the sideboards.
THE BIG OUCH
Patrick Kaleta put a crushing check on Carlo Colaiacovo behind the Toronto net in the first period that knocked the stick out of the hands of the Leafs defencman. Kaleta got the puck near the faceoff circle and with Colaiacovo trying unsuccessfully to cover him without a stick, Kaleta seet up Drew Stafford in the slot for Buffalo's third goal.
THE BIGGER OUCH
Already without Mats Sundin, the Leafs lost another part of their top line when Paul Gaustad checked Nik Antropov. Antropov played only five shifts and didn't return for the second period with an undetermined knee injury. Midway through the second period, Colaiacovo, who had been standing at the point, hobbled off the ice when he had his feet knocked out from behind by Drew Stafford who was late getting back into the Sabres' zone. No penalties were called on either play.