So the playoff dream is still alive. Just barely.
But alive nonetheless, with a faint pulse and everything.
It took a game that had everything but the outcome in common with last year’s playoff collapse to get two points this time, as the Toronto Maple Leafs held on for dear life before toppling the Boston Bruins 4-3 in overtime, ending a roller coaster night with the only result that would have really kept them in the race.
Even with the two points, the Leafs return to the postseason is a long shot.
They’re up to a 9.9 per cent chance of making it, and running the table over their final four games may not even be enough, especially in light of the Columbus Blue Jackets latest win on the out of town scoreboard.
But if the Leafs do somehow miraculously pull it off, they’ll face the Bruins in Round 1, and do this preposterous, thrilling dance all over again, for the second year in a row.
So the hockey gods have a sense of humour.
They certainly did on Thursday, anyway. With their season on the line and the Bruins playing for little more than the Presidents’ Trophy, the Leafs raced out to a 3-1 lead just 21 minutes into the game, getting a couple fortuitous bounces in spite of some ugly turnovers, and it looked like it would be their night against a tired Boston team.
Instead it turned into a nightmare, with Milan Lucic scoring early in the third – a period in which the Leafs were ultimately outshot 17-5, as is their tendency – and Patrice Bergeron tying the game late on a goal through a screen in yet another tally reminiscent of Game 7 last May.
Along the way, the Leafs lost starting netminder Jonathan Bernier, perhaps for a while, as a nagging groin injury was aggravated with the insane late-game workload and forced him out of the crease.
In came an unlikely hero in James Reimer, the backup who few thought would ever see any more meaningful minutes for this team after a rough couple outings in Bernier’s place when he was initially hurt.
The crowd cheered. The Leafs sagged on the ice.
But only one puck beat him the rest of the way, as Reimer made 10 saves on the 11 shots he faced in 14 minutes in relief.
“He gave us a chance,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “And good for him. We needed that and he needed that.”
“I’m going to take the opportunity and run with it as much as I can,” Reimer said of Bernier’s injury, the status of which is up in the air until Friday morning.
Ultimately the game came down to a 4-on-3 overtime power play of all things, where defenceman Cody Franson – the goat on Boston’s first goal with a brutal turnover – connected with Nazem Kadri in front of the net for the winner.
Kadri had been nailed to the bench much of the night, and his less than 12 minutes in ice time would have surely become a storyline in a loss, especially considering fourth liner Troy Bodie played more than 20 minutes.
No matter how it was earned, point No. 84 felt pretty good.
“I thought tonight we showed a lot of resilience to come back and win that game,” captain Dion Phaneuf said afterwards. “There were lots of momentum shifts… It doesn’t matter how we got it. We got it.”
While it wasn’t the prettiest of wins, the one thing the Leafs now have back in their corner is some tiny measure of belief that maybe, just maybe, they can eke out a few more games and make things interesting.
After all, whatever confidence this team had was completely wiped out last weekend, with two gutting losses to Philadelphia and Detroit, the latter of which turned the Leafs dressing room into a morgue just six days ago.
They looked like a team that had been beaten and given up, a dead team skating, both that night and again in practice early in the week.
“That stretch was not fun to go through,” Phaneuf admitted. “It was tough physically. Mentally.”
Tuesday’s win over Calgary wasn’t particularly impressive, either, but it had successfully gassed the eight-game losing streak, giving Toronto a little bit of confidence and jump to start Thursday’s game against an opponent that brings out the best and worst in them, for whatever reason.
That turned into the early goals, with Paul Ranger getting the first six minutes in, and a lucky bounce off Tyler Bozak making it 2-1 late in the first period.
James van Riemsdyk then capitalized right away in the second, roofing a nice feed from Phil Kessel over Bruins backup Chad Johnson, for a two-goal lead.
Things unravelled in typical Leaf fashion from there, with Carlyle still unable or unwilling to get his troops to stop trying to shot block their way to victories in games they have the lead, the very same systemic issue that wiped them out in the Meltdown in Beantown last May.
Had Toronto lost, that would have been the story in the aftermath, too, a fitting epitaph after a season spent playing too much in their own zone, making turnovers, blowing leads and collapsing their way to brink of early elimination.
That it didn’t turn out that way may not ultimately matter, as their flaws have already robbed them from so many points the last three weeks.
As nice as the win over the Bruins is, the reality is still pretty grim. The biggest impact to their playoff hopes on Thursday actually came on the out of town scoreboard, where the Blue Jackets shutout the Philadelphia Flyers 2-0 to remain a point up on the Leafs.
While that sounds like a dogfight, two things are working against Toronto. One is Columbus still has two games in hand, including one in Dallas where they’ll start with a 1-0 lead (due to the fact it was postponed midgame due to a medical emergency involving Rich Peverley last month).
Two is the fact the Leafs don’t hold the tiebreaker, meaning they can’t simply pull even with the Blue Jackets: They have to pass them. So if Toronto finishes the year 4-0 by wiping out the Jets, Lightning, Panthers and Senators, Columbus can lose three games (3-2-1) and still edge them out for the final spot.
That’s obviously an uncomfortable spot to be, especially with the Leafs final three games all on the road.
But it’s far, far better than where they were last weekend, going through the motions and hopelessly hopeless.
Now they have hope. And all they need is more wins.
“We cannot look past our next one,” Phaneuf said, “because that’s the biggest one of the year for us.”
You’re up, Winnipeg.
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