What has been inevitable for the better part of the past six weeks could become reality late on Tuesday night.
The Maple Leafs will be officially eliminated from post-season contention, relegated to another spring of wondering what it’s like to participate in the Stanley Cup tournament, another summer of navel-gazing, if they lose in regulation against the visiting Carolina Hurricanes.
The Leafs would be stuck at 75 points. The Washington Capitals, in eighth with 84 points, and the Buffalo Sabres, in ninth with 84 points, meet that evening in Washington. One team will emerge with 86 points, making it impossible for the Leafs to catch it, as they would have only five games and a possible 10 points on the table.
The time has come that the Leafs know what’s about to happen, whether they acknowledge it specifically or not.
“We want to play good hockey,” captain Dion Phaneuf said on Sunday night when he was asked about the club’s objective in the final half-dozen games. “We want to keep building on the way we have been playing.
“It has been a lot of, you know, momentum swings down the stretch here.”
The Leafs are 4-6-2 since Randy Carlyle took over from the fired Ron Wilson as head coach. None of those wins have happened at the Air Canada Centre, where the Leafs are riding a nine-game losing skid (0-6-3) that goes back to Feb. 6, when they beat the Edmonton Oilers.
The Leafs had just won for the fifth time in six games, but then all of the good things ground to a halt. Since, they’re 5-15-3 no matter where they have played, and just three of those wins have come in regulation. Wilson was canned in Montreal after the Leafs won once in an 11-game span.
“It has been a tough month and a half on everyone,” Phaneuf said. “We haven’t played nearly to where we want to be playing. Any time there is a coaching change, it falls on the players and we definitely do not feel good about that. But right from Day 1 when Randy came in, he has done a good job and we have been working to get better with him.
“He has been straightforward and positive.”
The Leafs couldn’t make a quick adjustment when Carlyle implored them to mind their defensive responsibilities, but are starting to come around (forgetting the losses last week against Boston and the Islanders), with a 3-2-1 record in their past six games.
“I thought our team in general played one of the better games we have played in a while,” Carlyle said after the 4-3 shootout loss against the New York Rangers on Saturday night. “We were not too reckless with the puck, our execution level was higher, our compete level was higher, we battled, and when we gave up the goal in the third period, we came right back on the first shift to battle and get it back.”
Despite the on-ice futility, the Leafs remain a popular group, the paper-bag-clad customers seen recently at the ACC aside. A line of people snaked down the sidewalk on Bremner Blvd. on Sunday night, waiting admittance to the MLSE Players Gala, a charity event that included the current rosters of the Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and the Marlies under the same roof at the company sports bar.
“To get to mingle with some of the other players and to bring people out to this, makes it a great night for charity,” Phaneuf said.
Of course, what Carlyle teaches now is nothing more than planting seeds, as more than a few of the players he is guiding now will, presumably, be shipped out by general manager Brian Burke during the off-season. The Sunday event probably marked the last time the Leafs, as they stand now, will be together for an event in a building that’s not a hockey arena.
KADRI SENT DOWN
Forwards Nazem Kadri and Ryan Hamilton took the cab ride back to the Ricoh Coliseum on Sunday afternoon.
The Leafs returned the pair to the Toronto Marlies in time for the Marlies’ game against the Texas Stars.
Kadri and Hamilton both had an assist in the Marlies’ 4-2 loss.
Kadri and Hamilton were recalled by the Leafs last week on an emergency basis when Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin were injured. The demotions of Kadri and Hamilton could indicate that MacArthur and Frattin will be ready to return to the lineup on Tuesday when the Carolina Hurricanes visit the Leafs. Whether that’s true might be clearer on Monday morning when the Leafs re-convene for practice.
In 21 games with the Leafs this season, Kadri has five goals and two assists and is plus-2. Against the Devils in New Jersey on Friday night, he had one goal and scored the shootout winner.
Hamilton made his NHL debut against the Devils and had an assist.