TORONTO — This is what has April hockey has become in Toronto where, with a little imagination, little victories can be made to feel like bigger ones.
In many cities around the NHL, teams are jockeying for playoff position, resting star players and generally making the best of the calm before the storm.
On Thursday at the Air Canada Centre, there was considerably less on the line as the annual rite of spring, Maple Leaf style, was in full bloom.
The hosts put up their usual (of late) decent effort and had a peripheral involvement on the playoff race with a 4-2 victory over the Sabres. As psychological victories go, the result prevented a sweep of the six-game season series and put a dent in the Sabres’ effort to clinch the Northeast Division title.
“It’s great to beat them, to set the tone for next year,” said defenceman Garnet Exelby, who of all people scored for his first goal as a Leaf. “We’re sick of losing to that team and something had to give.”
That the Leafs stuck it to Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller had to feel even better. Miller had been outspoken in his disdain for the Leafs and had a sparkling 1.58 goals-against average in the five previous meetings this season.
Outside, looking in
Still, for a club-record fifth consecutive season, the Leafs will be on the outside looking in, a fate that has become so commonplace that the reaction seems to be more indifference than anger.
That it has become the norm is alarming. With Phoenix headed for the post-season and Los Angeles all but there, each ending six-year droughts, the Leafs now have the second-longest run of futility in the league.
Only the Florida Panthers, who soon will be eliminated for the ninth consecutive season, are more foreign to playoff revenue than MLSEL’s hockey division.
So that left another full house, this one measured at 19,090, to be amused by what would be mundane for most playoff-bound clubs.
Besides Exelby’s sniper routine, there was another from a goal-challenged defenceman as Luke Schenn scored the game-winner at 8:30 of the third, his fifth of the season.
“We unleased all our secret weapons on them,” Leafs coach Wilson quipped.
There was the reunited Frat Pack, an all NCAA-line of Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg, who scored the game’s opener and his third in the past two games.
For rookie Stalberg, three of his eight goals have come against Miller.
“It was a bit of luck, he’s a great goaltender, probably the best in the league,” Stalberg said. “But we were able to get a lot of traffic in front of him and that makes it easier.”
If that wasn’t enough college content, two days after signing with the Leafs, Toronto native Brayden Irwin got to skate in front of family and friends in what likely is a one-game cameo.
If they want to see him next season, it most likely will be at the Ricoh Coliseum, where he will get some needed seasoning with the Marlies. Wilson did think that Irwin handled himself well in his debut.
Well, there was the Leafs twice blowing one-goal leads, each of which lasted less than two minutes.
There was one of what will likely be just three remaining home games in the Tomas Kaberle era. Where there’s smoke there’s fire — and there was plenty of the latter around Kaberle Thursday — so don’t expect him to be around past July 1.
The four remaining games will determine just how far the Leafs finish below their total of 81 points from one season ago.
Wherever they end up, it will be the fourth consecutive season with a decline in points and the team’s lowest output since the NHL began awarding bonus points for overtime losses in the 1999-2000 season.
But that was then. This group can’t do much about the past, so they’ll take any victory, however small, and wait for the day they mean something more.