Larry Tanenbaum was in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room talking with captain Dion Phaneuf – the co-owner in a suit and the player in his underwear, sharing a few pleasantries.
The Leafs had just won their final home game of the season, with Phaneuf scoring the winner in overtime, but the mood was far from jubilant, even with the owner on hand to glad hand.
Not when Toronto finished their run at the Air Canada Centre with only two wins in their last 13 home games and not when beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 mattered so little Thursday night.
“He comes in after every win,” Phaneuf said of Tanenbaum. “He just said good job on the win... As an owner, he cares so much.”
Tanenbaum sightings have been rare of late and so have opportunities for the home crowd to cheer the Leafs off the ice.
Just how disillusioned the fan base has become was highlighted by the fact that a huge portion of the crowd was a no-show until the second period -- which coincided with the end of the Toronto Blue Jays' 16-inning season opener in Cleveland.
Even so, the Leafs said they were glad to give their fans a win – especially after their late-season collapse has seen the home crowd booing them off the ice so often the past two months.
After Phaneuf scored the winner, he and his teammates gathered at centre ice and raised their sticks in a salute to those in the stands.
“We talked about wanting to win tonight in front of our fans,” Phaneuf said. “Finish off the season on a winning note at home. We’ve talked a lot about the past and what’s happened, but all our focus was on winning tonight’s game.”
“It was just nice to get that winning feeling,” added Clarke MacArthur. "It's tough when you're out of the race. It's never a good feeling."
The game itself wasn’t a whole lot to get excited about, as after the teams traded goals early in the first, there was a 42-minute stretch without anyone finding the back of the net.
Lightning star Steven Stamkos ended that drought with his 59th on a pretty passing play that gave Tampa a one-goal lead with 11 minutes to play.
Leafs rookie Jake Gardiner, however, tied things up with just under three minutes to go, setting up Phaneuf’s winner with 59 seconds left in the extra frame.
Toronto was badly out-shot at times in the game (including 17-5 in the second) but received solid enough goaltending from Ben Scrivens to hang in until the end.
“It was good to see us battle back,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “We didn’t have a very good second period by anybody’s standards. We were pretty frustrated with ourselves.”
The win is part of a modest revival by the Leafs over the last 11 games, as they’ve gone 5-4-2 since mid-March in a stretch that appears it will mean they don’t finish among the NHL’s bottom five teams.
The Leafs at least temporarily hopped over Minnesota and Anaheim in the standings with the two points but remained in fifth last after the Wild and Ducks won later in the night.
The highest Toronto can finish at this point is one rung higher, in seventh last, and the lowest is fourth last. Anything in the bottom five would put them in the running for the first overall pick in Tuesday’s lottery draft.
The Leafs only remaining game is Saturday in Montreal, where they’ll face the Habs in another meeting of two teams bound for the golf course next week.
“There was a feeling that you want to make sure you leave a positive impression on your fan base,” Carlyle said. “That’s important here.”
"They deserve to see a win like that," MacArthur said. "Come back and finish it up right. I know it doesn't mean much in the big picture, but it's nice to win for the fans."
Defending the captain
Carlyle also spent part of his postgame press conference defending Phaneuf, who has been heavily criticized as the Leafs have fallen down the standings and out of playoff contention.
Here was his response to a question on that theme:
"I don't really understand why that criticism comes," Carlyle said. "He's an energetic individual, he's a caring individual when he goes out... [he] plays his ass off for the hockey club. Stands up and challenges and plays the game the way we'd like all of our players to play. And yet there's criticism delivered his way because of the situation.
"That 'C' gets pretty heavy some nights. And when you don't have success, they look to your captains. But your leadership has to come from not just one individual. It has to come from a group.
"I don't know if [the criticism]affects him. My conversations with him were you've got to block everything that's going on outside. You're going to be judged by your on-ice performance. That's what you can control."