Their expression says they know it’s coming.
Their words almost say it, too, even if they’re not allowed to.
Elimination is imminent for the Toronto Maple Leafs – if not on Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes, then almost certainly some other time during their three game homestand this week.
What remains unspoken by the organization – that this franchise is less than two weeks from its seventh consecutive playoff miss – will be official after its next regulation loss.
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” winger Clarke MacArthur said halfheartedly when informed either the Leafs or Canes will be eliminated if they don’t earn at least a point on Tuesday. “Let’s win it then.”
“No, no, we haven’t talked about that at all,” teammate Luke Schenn added. “Obviously we realize we’re not in ideal positioning in the standings.”
Which is putting it mildly.
With six games remaining in what’s become a nightmare finish to its season, the best Toronto can manage if it runs the table is 87 points – a number that will fall well short of where eighth place is tracking.
That leaves the Leafs “playing for pride,” as Schenn put it on Monday, the rest of the way, earning whatever small victories they can by trying to ruin the playoff hopes of a team such as the Buffalo Sabres.
Their other task will be to continue to learn new coach Randy Carlyle’s system, which so far has produced just a 4-6-2 record and has curiously relied on the likes of David Steckel and Joey Crabb in prominent roles.
After an incredible nosedive in which the Leafs won just five of their past 23 games, the players’ frustration over having so little to battle for is palpable in the dressing room these days.
Schenn, in particular, is an interesting case given just how much ugliness he’s played through in four years in Toronto.
The Leafs have lost nearly 60 per cent of their games in that time (134-141-47), putting up more points than only fellow basket cases in Columbus, Edmonton and Long Island.
(Toronto has only eight more points than the lowly Blue Jackets over Schenn’s tenure in the league.)
At just 22, in other words, he has been a part of more than his fair share of on-ice misery.
This season, however, ranks as the worst outing yet, with the team’s solid first four months and dramatic, six-week fall difficult to take.
“Obviously it’s disappointing every year [you miss]” Schenn said. “But this year, for the first time, we were sitting pretty good at the all-star break. … There was no question [for us]that we’d make the playoffs. We’ve had a real tough run. It’s definitely disappointing. It’s even hard to comprehend right now how we’re here.”
Like their stunned general manager, who compared his team’s falloff to “an 18-wheeler going off a cliff” when he fired coach Ron Wilson, the players simply can’t believe how fast and hard they dropped.
The games, however, keep coming, and eliminated or not, the Leafs have to play them.
Throwing in the towel isn’t an option – even if a large portion of the fan base would love to see the Leafs land a top-five draft pick.
“You’re a professional athlete,” Schenn said. “You stay competitive no matter what. Everyone hates to lose and you always want to push yourself to do better. You don’t want to show up to the rink and be embarrassed by another team.”
With six games to go, that’s all that’s left for the Leafs.
Be a spoiler. Be competitive. And don’t get embarrassed.
It’s not much to play for.