TORONTO - We could start and end the description of the opportunity that got away from the Maple Leafs this season with two words: Florida Panthers.
The only team with a longer-standing playoff drought is back in after 10 seasons, making the Leafs the NHLís biggest losers in terms of inability to qualify for the post-season.
A team that was in dire need of a rebuild just two short seasons ago may not be feared entering the Stanley Cup playoffs this time around, but at least theyíre in the dance.
And the Leafs are left on the outside looking in for a seventh consecutive season.
Itís supposed to sting every time you miss the playoffs, a point general manager Brian Burke isnít shy about hammering home. In fact, in his first season here, Burke roared over the fact that there those in the organization who were taking it too lightly.
ďAny day that you have to stand in front of the media and talk about not qualifying for the playoffs should be a kick right in the groin to everyone in the organization,Ē Burke said in one of our favourite quotes from the fiery GM. ďThis is a day that represents failure. My (previous) teams have been in the playoffs for seven straight years and (missing) ... it burns my butt.Ē
He couldnít have said it better.
As it will be for the next several days, scoreboard watching in the Eastern Conference was intriguing Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre. Unfortunately for Leafs supporters, if they wanted to play that game, they had to do so vicariously through other teams. The visiting Sabres, fighting for the final spot in the Eastern Conference, not only were losing, but had to follow the gloom of Washington beating Montreal in overtime.
Should the Leafs have been in that mix as well? As has often been recited, as recently as Feb. 6, it seemed almost a sure thing.
Forward Joffrey Lupul, one of the leaders in the Leafs dressing room before he was injured, even talked about moving up in the standings and not just battling for eighth. It was a welcome attitude shift and there was nothing pie-in-the-sky about such ambition.
There is no shortage of analysis on the Leafsí subsequent collapse, as stunning a fall as any NHL team has ever seen. What makes it exponentially more frustrating is the fact that it was a season during which the Eastern Conference was ripe for the taking.
Playoff teams from a year ago ó Washington, Tampa Bay and Montreal ó all made huge regressions with only the Capitals in contention for a spot as the 2011-12 season enters its final week.
Worse yet, the Leafs remained roped to a guardrail on the Gardiner Expressway while Florida, Ottawa and New Jersey ó three teams that also missed last year ó cruised on by and now appear a cinch to get in (The Senators actually clinched on Sunday). Hereís a snapshot look at some of the teams that either are making it in the East or went backwards enough to open the door for the Leafs to finally break into the post season.
When Dale Tallon took over as GM in May of 2010, the Panthers were a mess. Now they are headed for the playoffs after a turnaround that has been remarkably swift. The Panthers matched their point total of a year ago (72) with 20 games remaining and now are on the verge of finishing off a worst- to-first turnaround in the suspect Southeast Division.
A different market for sure, but there was enough pressure given that, for southern U.S. teams to survive, itís essential they visit the playoffs quasi-regularly. Tallonís method was to blow up the old roster then put it together again as quickly as possible. While itís rare to have such success so quickly, the Panthers have found it.
A couple of caveats are necessary, however. The regression of both Washington and Tampa Bay, of course, was one. For another, the Panthers are one of only two teams currently in a playoff spot with a negative goal differential and at minus-23 they are by far the worst in that category.
They may have entered the season as one of the favourites in the Eastern Conference, despite being swept in four games by the Lightning in the conference semis last spring. But fortunes quickly dipped and coach Bruce Boudreau was fired early in the season.
His replacement, Dale Hunter, didnít exactly see his style embraced by the Caps. Furthermore, for much of the season, superstar Alex Ovechkin has been far from the Great Eight.
But here are the Caps with a clear edge on the Sabres for eighth spot (thanks in part to the Leafsí win over Buffalo on Saturday). With three games remaining, the Caps can max out at 94 points. A year ago, they were the top seed in the Eastern Conference with 107.
Such a tumble came as a shock and certainly created an opportunity for the Leafs, one that quickly faded away during the February slump.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Not that they were expected to be a pushover, given the late surge last season, but the Devils have a shot at 100-point season after an uncharacteristic 81 (four fewer than the Leafs) a year ago. That off season was the first time in a decade that the Devils had missed the post-season, but they have responded to the coaching of Peter DeBoer and have stayed in the playoff mix throughout the season.
And even as the likely No. 6 seed, they may get the ultimate bonus in the first round should they draw the No. 3 Panthers, who will have fewer points despite the higher ranking.
From owner Eugene Melnyk to GM Bryan Murray, the pre-season talk was of rebuild. Rookie head coach Paul MacLean didnít buy it and his team bought into that attitude right away.
As a result, the Senators seized the only edge that matters in the Battle of Ontario, clinching a playoff berth with their win against the Islanders on Sunday afternoon. Depending on how they finish the final week, the Sens could improve more than 20 points on last season.
While the Leafsí division rivals still have a thin shot to get back in the playoffs, they have been a massive disappointment.
In the off-season, some touted them as Stanley Cup contenders, perpetuating the noise coming out of Buffalo that new ownership of the team had changed the culture around the team.
A huge turnaround from the middle of February on has them on the edge of qualifying, but even if they win their final three games, the Sabres will finish four points less than last season at 92. At one point in the second half of the season, the Leafs had a 10-point bulge on Buffalo.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
They were the upstart story of the playoffs last year, knocking out both the Sidney Crosby-less Penguins and the Caps in a four-game sweep to make it to the conference final.
It has been a vastly different story under coach Guy Boucher this season, however. The Bolts, despite having the NHLís leading goal scorer in Steven Stamkos, are barely going to crack 80 regular-season points after running up 103 last season. Toronto may catch them in the final week but wonít be able to do anything about claiming the playoff spot the Lightning vacated.