Choke complete: Leafs playoff hopes officially die

Defenceman Jake Gardiner falls as he tries to take a shot in the Leafs' 3-0 loss to Tampa on...

Defenceman Jake Gardiner falls as he tries to take a shot in the Leafs' 3-0 loss to Tampa on Tuesday. The Leafs are now out of the playoff picture. (USA Today)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:48 PM ET

In better times, an early-April visit to Florida can be a perfect tonic for an NHL team awaiting important games ahead.

Though a break from a different type of heat at home, there was no vacation feel to this three-game road to nowhere trip that began — and flatly ended — on Tuesday night with a 3-0 loss to the Lightning.

Instead, it became a place to scatter the ashes of a season that perished in stunningly rapid, dramatic and listless fashion.

The Leafs’ loss here at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, combined with a 4-3 Columbus Blue Jackets overtime win over Phoenix, ended the death watch and rendered the remaining two games of the regular season meaningless.

In the end, it truly was a mercy killing for a Leafs team that looked like the walking dead down here anyway. That they couldn’t manage a goal, never mind a victory, was a fitting end to a collapse that will rank among the worst for a franchise that has seen its share of them.

While it must be tough to summon motivation when the odds are so firmly stacked against them, the Leafs had an opportunity to remain on life support on Tuesday but, once again, lacked the heartbeat to keep it humming.

They had a shot to remain mathematically alive with a strong effort against a Tampa team interested only in sharpening their game for the post-season.

They had an opportunity to display some professional pride in the wake of one of their worst outings of the season on Saturday, when they took a knee from the Winnipeg Jets.

And they had an opening when excellent Tampa goaltender Ben Bishop left the game with an upper-body injury early in the first period.

But once the Leafs were unable to take advantage of three power plays in the first 30 minutes, the inevitable arrived and the Lightning did just enough to take control — not that it has taken much to do that against these Leafs lately.

A nice toe drag move from Ondrej Palat started it at 9:19 of the second and, when the Bolts winger added another on the power play at 15:45 of the second, Tim Leiweke’s parade plans had officially turned to a funeral march.

By the start of the third, it was clear that if any fight had accompanied the team to Florida, it wasn’t going to be enough. As the Jackets were doing their part out of town, the Leafs couldn’t manage a shot on the Tampa net until Morgan Rielly drifted a harmless wrister at Anders Lindback almost nine minutes into what would be the final period of meaning in their season.

During a TV timeout later in the period, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle could barely muster words of encouragement for his team as heads hung low from one end of the bench to the other.

Prior to the game, Carlyle relayed the verbal challenge he offered his team in the wake of the poor effort versus the Jets.

“More than anything, we’re looking for a response off our performance the other night,” Carlyle said. “We were not happy with what happened. The only way were are going to be judged is if we can come out and compete to the level we are capable of.”

Just what they are capable of these days is anyone’s guess, and yes, the judging will be harsh. It’s certainly not to the level they played at prior to the Olympic break. And it’s certainly not to the level of teams such as the Lightning, which is fine-tuning for a playoff run.

Instead, Carlyle was left with some desperation moves, in part because of the season-ending injury to Joffrey Lupul, who had successful arthroscopic knee surgery on Tuesday, and the latest scratch of David Bolland, who has regressed in his recovery from a severe cut near his ankle.

Looking for any spark he could get, the Leafs coach — whose future will be the subject of much debate over the days and weeks ahead — desperately looked for some help on his blue line. He opened up with Jake Gardiner paired with Carl Gunnarsson and captain Dion Phaneuf alongside Tim Gleason.

Defensively, the Leafs were okay on this night, but the damage at that end of the ice was a season-long malaise that got them into this mess. Turnovers, odd-man rushes surrendered and a stunning inability to move the puck out of their own end with authority will be staples of the obituary written over the coming days and weeks.

The signs of nerves that have plagued the Leafs down the stretch were evident again on Tuesday, affirming the fragility deep in the team. James Reimer nearly let a goal trickle through his pads early and the first-unit power play continued to struggle.

With 11 losses in their past 14 games, the Leafs are essentially already on vacation, with a date against the Florida Panthers on Thursday. For this team — after this collapse — the Sunshine State has rarely looked so gloomy.


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