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Toronto Maple Leafs' Jake Gardiner (51) and Montreal Canadiens' Lars Eller (81) battle during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Saturday, April 7, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Jake Gardiner (51) and Montreal Canadiens' Lars Eller (81) battle during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Saturday, April 7, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes)

Leafs, Habs end season with whimper Add to ...

The suffering is at an end for two of the NHL's most storied teams.

This, we are assured, is a good thing.

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens both missed the playoffs in the same year was 2006-07, when Toronto rolled into the Bell Centre and beat Montreal on the next-to-last day of the season to eliminate their old rivals - only to see their own playoff hopes scotched by the New York Islanders the next day.

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Now the 2011-12 season can officially be added to scrap book of crummy memories in both cities.

“It’s definitely been a tough finish for our team, we’re going to evaluate over the next couple of days then we have to move forward,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said in the moments after a 4-1 loss to Montreal that saw the curtain fall on a dispiriting season.

Sitting pretty as recently as six weeks ago, Toronto’s season unravelled abruptly - even a coaching change the last time the club visited Montreal on Mar. 3 didn’t help.

“We didn’t win enough games after the All-Star break and that’s why we’re not going ahead into the playoffs. The bottom line is we didn’t play well enough, we didn’t raise our game to the level that it needed to be,” he said. “The game starts at one pace and it gets a little bit faster and then come Christmas time it gets faster, then after the All-Star break it gets faster, the level of intensity definitely picks up down the stretch and we have to adjust and learn how to win games . . . we faded, we have to learn how to put together a full 82 game schedule.”

The only stakes of note for the Leafs on Saturday were a bottom-five finish and a statistical shot at the first overall pick (only the five worst teams in the NHL have the possibility of landing the top pick in Tuesday’s draft lottery).

Mission accomplished, then - the reversal means Toronto will finish below the Anaheim Ducks to claim 26th place in the league standings.

Montreal was already assured of finishing no higher than 28th in the league, the victory cost them any chance of finishing below Edmonton and thus improving their odds of winning the first overall choice.

The prospect of choosing an impact player with their selection, which will be no lower than fourth - their highest draft choice since they had the first overall pick in 1980 - is small consolation.

Already without a general-manager, the Habs are expected to make other changes in the coming days, including deciding what to do with interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth, who said after the game that he would like to continue working within the organization - tacit admission that his days as the head man are over.

Then there’s the question of unrestricted free agents like veteran Mathieu Darche and grinding winger Travis Moen, and what to do about younger pieces like P.K. Subban, Carey Price, Alexei Emelin and Lars Eller - all restricted free agents who will be seeking raises and long-term deals.

This season is the first time the Canadiens have finished last in a conference since the format came into being in the 1974-75 season.

“It was nice to at least give the fans a good show to close it out,” said centre David Desharnais, “I think they enjoyed it.”

Though the hometown Habs, owners of the lowest home win total in the entire NHL coming in, managed to give their fans one last reason to cheer, this one had the feel of a couple of clubs going through the motions.

The game’s opening goal in the first period was an encapsulation of the Leafs’ season: with the puck deep in the Montreal end for a faceoff to mark the beginning of 1:01 five-on-three power-play, Matt Lombardi won the draw to winger Tim Connolly.

The puck was cycled back to Jake Gardiner at the point but started bouncing crazily - just as Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec swatted at it.

Plekanec duly sped up the ice on a breakaway, but lost the handle as he arrived in front of Ben Scrivens in the Toronto net - no matter, the puck glided through the Leafs’ netminder’s legs.

It was the first three-on-five goal for Montreal since Guy Carbonneau did it to the Minnesota North Stars on Mar. 24, 1983 - the goal was only the second in that situation in the NHL this year.

Montreal forward Max Pacioretty, who should be a shoo-in for the NHL’s comeback player of the year, made it 2-0 in the second when he stuffed a shot past Scrivens’ short-side shoulder - the goaltender was left to his own devices on a three-on-one after some confusion near the Leafs bench led to a bad line change.

It was Pacioretty’s 33rd goal of the year.

“It’s a lot of fun when we play like that, if we had done it all year the results may have been different,” he said.

The visitors clawed one back just 25 seconds into the third, Dion Phaneuf’s slapper finding the net past a screened Peter Budaj (the Montreal backup goalie was otherwise excellent this night).

But Erik Cole made it 3-1 shortly thereafter when he sped around a static Mike Komisarek and beat Scrivens with a high shot for his career-best 35th of the season.

Tough guy Brad Staubitz scored an empty-netter in the late going, firing a desperation clearance the length of the ice that found the target dead centre. It was his first point since joining the team at the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

“I almost Supermanned into the bench I was so excited,” said Staubitz.

Asked if he was aiming for the goal when he let fly, Staubitz, who is slated to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, said “I wasn’t shooting to miss.”

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