Leafs left to watch with envy

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:54 AM ET

One more indignity awaited the thrice-eliminated Maple Leafs on locker cleanout day.

The "passion that unites them all," had turned to green envy at four teams who missed the Eastern Conference playoffs last year and now are all girding for playoff hockey. The Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals were all behind the Leafs, the Flyers and Bruins and Caps for the past two seasons.

The exiting Leafs knew that was punishment for a franchise-record 23 one-goal losses, 39 counting last season, and 22 combined overtime losses. But all those close calls also gave a glimmer of hope that a turnaround might occur without tossing sticks of dynamite into the dressing room.

"You look at Montreal, from missing playoffs to top of the conference and wonder what gives," Darcy Tucker said. "It's just too bad we had to play .800 hockey down the stretch to try and win."

But Tucker made no excuses for the Leafs stumbling around again in the first half of the season. He could be one of those paying the price with a trade or buyout.

"It's going to be another long summer, hearing things we don't want to hear," centre Matt Stajan said. "We seem to make good runs every year, but unless you're the Ottawa Senators and win 15 (of the first 17 games), you can't slip. At the end, there's no room for error. You make that error, it's lights out and not only does your body take a pounding, but your mind, too."

Stajan gave full marks to a team such as the Bruins, who swept the Leafs in a home and home that ended Toronto's March playoff push.

"They didn't have as many good players as some teams who were eliminated," Stajan said. "But they got the job done. On too many nights, we weren't on the same page. We out-chanced a lot of teams, but left our goalies out to dry."

Coach Paul Maurice has to answer for some of those latter failings. He held one-on-one meetings with each player yesterday, perhaps for the last time, but he and interim general manager Cliff Fletcher are saving their official post mortems for today.

Mats Sundin and Jason Blake were the only notable players to do an end run on the media yesterday, but the captain said his piece last week.

Blake made an inglorious exit on Saturday, restrained by Maurice from a verbal exchange with a Montreal fan in the visitors' tunnel, while earlier in the day, Blake made his second reference this season to the coaching staff not making better use of him. He fell from 40 goals as an Islander to 15 here, but made up some points later in the season.

Bryan McCabe, like Tucker, a Leaf for the better part of this decade, prefered to recall the few good times this roster enjoyed and repeated his wish to stay, but admitted: "I don't know their plans for me.

"We can take a lot of positives out of this year, but we kind of faded after the Boston series.

"It was a tough year with a lot of media scrutiny. You don't win, you can expect changes."


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