The end is near for Leafs

TERRY KOSHAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

The Maple Leafs' playoff hopes were snared in a bear trap last night and it's probably time to get someone in for the last rites.

After teasing their fans with a terrific three-game trip that ended with an emotionally charged victory against the Ottawa Senators, the Leafs returned home and celebrated Easter a few days after everyone else, laying an egg with a 6-2 loss to the Boston Bruins.

The setback put the Leafs six points behind the Bruins, who have 86 points, for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has five games remaining, including tomorrow night in Beantown, but the players might want to stop kidding themselves and head down to the basement to dust off the golf clubs.

"We're going to hope the hockey gods give us some help," said Matt Stajan, who did not sound convinced of such a scenario. "There it still hope, and we have to beat these guys (tomorrow)."

The unpredictable nature of the Leafs' season was on full display, and a major factor that will keep coach Paul Maurice staring at the ceiling at night is his team's difficulty in winning at home. The Leafs' 17 home victories are better only than the 15 collected by the Los Angeles Kings, but the problem has become more acute in March. The Leafs are 6-0 on the road this month, and 1-4 at the Air Canada Centre.

Three nights after beating Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and the rest of the Senators, the Leafs barely could keep up with a patchwork group of Bruins. With the top players on each team -- the Bruins' Marc Savard and the Leafs' Mats Sundin -- out with injuries, what was left of the Bruins simply wanted it more than the players the Leafs had to offer. Plenty of nice things have been written about the Leafs' youth in the past few days, but the Bruins' youngsters, including David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Matt Lashoff, were better last night.

"The clear difference in the game is physically, one-on-one, we struggled," an exasperated but calm Maurice said. "I am not talking about the big hit, but winning the puck battles, winning position battles. We had a hard time right from the start."

Jason Blake and Alexei Ponikarovsky scored for the Leafs. Boyd Devereaux returned after missing 15 games with a knee injury, and Alex Foster was sent to the Marlies. Vesa Toskala made 24 saves.

Glen Murray, Krejci, Marco Sturm, Shawn Thornton, Phil Kessel and Jeremy Reich scored for the Bruins.

Each of the three teams between the Leafs and the Bruins -- the Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers -- all played last night. But their results became meaningless as it became clear the Leafs were going to lose.

The Leafs have played smart hockey in the past few weeks, one reason they had won five of six. But some were guilty of inexplicable decisions, and it cost them.

Maurice lamented the dumb penalties his team took -- though he did not use that adjective. Mark Bell socked Shane Hnidy in the first period that led to a penalty and a Bruins power-play goal, and Darcy Tucker hooked Murray, resulting in a power play that led to the winning goal by Sturm.

These are not the sort of things Maurice should be worrying about with precious little time left in the regular season and the Leafs lying on the mat.

"We have to stay out of the penalty box," Maurice said, doing his best imitation of a recording. "We have been fighting that war far too long and losing it."

Bryan McCabe was caught pinching on the play that led to the Bruins' fourth goal. On the second, young Anton Stralman wandered out of position. They were mental mistakes that good teams do not make in the heat of the moment.

'NEVER LOSE HOPE'

Ponikarovsky kept the party line going about never losing hope, but he, like the few other Leafs who made themselves available for post-game interviews, said he realized Toronto has to win all five of its last games for a chance at the playoffs.

"You never lose hope, you keep battling to the end," Ponikarovsky said. "(But) whatever you get is basically what you deserve, probably."


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