The Great Depressing

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:17 AM ET

BOSTON -- The previous time Toronto's NHL franchise missed the playoffs three straight seasons was 80 years ago, just before the Great Depression.

Which about sums up the general mood around Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. today, now that the Air Canada Centre officially will be devoid of playoff revenue a third straight season. The Boston Bruins put the Leafs away for good last night with a 4-2 win at TD Banknorth Garden, meaning the best the 12th-ranked Leafs can do is win their remaining four and lose an eighth-place tiebreaker to Boston or Philadelphia.

But with fan wrath sure to fall on the Leafs in their remaining three meaningless home games, MLSEL must take a heap of the blame for its failure to adapt to the post-lockout NHL. By the time it figured out Pat Quinn and John Ferguson weren't going to provide the answers to a 40-year Stanley Cup drought, waffling on general manager Ferguson's fate at least a year too long while allowing him to build a cap-unfriendly team, the so-called flagship club had become a have-not team.

"The season is another failure, and it sucks," said defenceman Bryan McCabe, one of several players who could be on his way out through trade or buyout. "We battled hard, but too little, too late."

Now the overdue re-tooling phase can kick in, though the play of the Leafs since interim boss Cliff Fletcher took over in January has given hope that the cupboard isn't bare. Whoever is in command next season in the front office or behind the bench will have to pay more than lip service to having a better start at home (4-5-5 this season) and not spend half the season in experimental mode with goalies and slow-starting players.

NO EXCUSES

McCabe said the long Leafs injury list of past seasons played a role, but they also lost a few early season games with all hands on deck, while teams such as Boston, closing in on the 330 man-games-lost mark, was able to compensate.

"Three years ... it gets on your nerves," said Nik Antropov, whose personal-best year will not have a post-season epilogue.

It took Ferguson and coach Paul Maurice too long to get players such as Jason Blake, Darcy Tucker and Pavel Kubina rolling, to figure Vesa Toskala was far superior to Andrew Raycroft, to get Kyle Wellwood straightened out before benching him and to get the clutch offence that cost them five overtime losses in the first 19 games.

"You can't be losing six or seven games in a row (early in the year) and claw your way back," McCabe said.

By the end, players such as Matt Stajan and Alex Steen were doing the talking for a team whose veterans had run out of answers.

Asked for his assessment of his second failed playoff run as coach, Maurice said: "I don't know if I can explain it 10 minutes after a game. It's too early to feel good about anything, but that (autopsy) time is coming."

The Leafs did excel under Fletcher after he arrived in late January (16-11-2) and entered this week with a chance to catch the Bruins and enliven the Eastern Conference playoff race. But they came up flat in this home-and-home series, even with Mats Sundin and Antropov fast-tracking recovery time to play last night.

The Bruins grabbed the lead during a fast-paced first period when Marco Sturm finished off a 3-on-2. Jiri Tlusty, with help from Sundin and Antropov, tied it entering the third.

But Staffan Kronwall gave up on a third-period Phil Kessel breakaway, believing the pass was offside, with Glen Murray making it 3-1. Sundin ranted to referees Rob Shick and Chris Lee after the game, but the Leafs still had a chance after Kubina made it 3-2. Peter Schaefer answered that with a goal on Boston's next shift.

In the morning, the Bruins did their best to hide their excitement at the thought of putting away the Leafs.

"I'm one who doesn't like to rely on other people to do their dirty work for them," coach Claude Julien said. "If we win our games and hopefully get ourselves in a playoff spot by merit, then that's what it's all about."

The Bruins are trying to get into the playoffs for the first time since the lockout.

"We've heard all the talk about all the fan support they got here in the old Garden," forward Milan Lucic said. "We definitely want to experience (that)."


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