It’s looked over for a while.
Now it is officially.
After yet another late-season collapse, the Toronto Maple Leafs are not going back to the playoffs, with mathematical elimination finally, mercifully coming Tuesday night after their latest loss, 3-0 to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
More remarkable than the miss was how quickly it happened, with the Leafs earning only four points in the last 26 days as eight teams passed them in the Eastern Conference in less than a month.
Afterward in a brief, sombre scrum with reporters, head coach Randy Carlyle said he was “embarrassed” at how it had all played out.
“Numb and shock I guess would be the words to describe this,” said a dejected Carlyle, who was so upset he didn’t even speak to his team after the loss. “Extremely disappointed. Shallow. Embarrassed. All those things.”
“It’s a terrible feeling,” captain Dion Phaneuf added. “It’s not a good feeling.”
The Leafs situation had been so dire coming into Tuesday’s game that they needed considerable help on the out of town scoreboard to have a chance, even if they won their final three games.
Instead, they got just the opposite.
As Lightning rookie Ondrej Palat rang up two goals in the second period to deflate the already reeling Leafs, the teams they were chasing all started piling up points elsewhere.
First Columbus won, scoring late in the third period and again in overtime to beat a desperate Phoenix team. Then Detroit followed, holding on to edge bottom feeder Buffalo to hit the 90-point mark.
And the Philadelphia Flyers, who had started the year as poorly as Toronto finished, clinched a spot with a win on the other side of Florida by pummelling the hapless Panthers.
By the end of the night, the damage was substantial: With just 84 points after 80 games, the Leafs season was over, a mere 12 games after they sat in third in the conference and ninth in the league.
Back then, they were still playing for home ice advantage in the first round and believing they were a contending team.
Now, they’ll finish out the string with very little on the line other than whatever pride they have left and – in several cases anyway – jobs next season.
That the Leafs knew elimination was likely coming after so many losses lately didn’t make it any easier.
And the questions such a breakdown brings don’t come with easy answers.
“It seems like a long time ago and it’s been a lot of turmoil and a lot of stress around us since that time,” Carlyle said of where his team was on March 13, after beating the Los Angeles Kings and likely needing only six wins in their final 14 games to make the postseason.
“We thought that we’d proven to ourselves that we could compete with the good teams and we wanted to take the next step but it went in the other direction for us. We don’t have the answers right now as to why it happened that way. But we’re all responsible.”
“You can’t come back from that,” winger David Clarkson said of the team’s 2-10-0 freefall. “It’s obviously disappointing.”
After an embarrassing loss in a do-or-die game on Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets to close out their home schedule, the Leafs at least showed up in Tampa, playing the game to a draw early on.
The hockey gods seemed to be in Toronto’s favour, too, as Lightning netminder Ben Bishop – a Vezina candidate – went down with what looked like a separated shoulder just five minutes in, meaning little used backup Anders Lindback was charged with holding down the net and trying to win for the first time since early January.
But the Leafs attack – missing a couple key bodies and with its top players so taxed they appeared to be playing on fumes lately – wasn’t able to muster much of anything, even on three early power plays.
While Phil Kessel threatened a few times, they simply couldn’t beat the big Swede in goal, despite the fact Lindback had some of the worst numbers of any NHL netminder this season.
By the end, the Leafs weren’t even generating any opportunities. Down 2-0 and in the final meaningful period of hockey left in their season, they went shotless in the first nine minutes of the third.
Like their season, the Leafs were done.
“We just weren’t good enough,” netminder James Reimer said.
For a team that had outscored its issues for so long, perhaps it was fitting that a lack of offence finally did them in. It was one last sign that much of their success early in the year was a mirage and that everyone involved – players, coaches and management – has a lot more work to do to turn this into something resembling a contender.
Of all those on the hot seat, no one’s next few days will be more uncomfortable than Carlyle’s, who was hired two years ago amid much fanfare that he could turn the high flying Leafs into a disciplined defensive team.
Instead, he accomplished just the opposite, somehow turning Ron Wilson’s middling group into a puck possession black hole. The problems became so pronounced that the 2013-14 Leafs will now go down as one of the most outshot teams in league history, with none of the accountability or defensive responsibility the coach preached coming in.
Whether or not he will pay the ultimate price with his job will be fodder for debate as the final two games play out, but there’s certainly ample evidence plenty of blame belongs at his feet.
It was a year that wasted career years from so many, too, including goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who complained all year about his teammates’ porous play and then had to watch them bow out on television from back home as he nursed a knee injury suffered last week.
Ultimately, the Leafs early exit could turn into a good thing for the franchise. Toronto overachieved to have the half season it did a year ago, and it left many in the organization overconfident and believing they were further ahead than they were.
This year wasn’t a lockout-shortened sprint, and after 80 games, the standings are far more telling than after 48.
The Leafs are not a very good team. In addition to their defensive issues, they benefited from winning nine shootouts before the 50-game mark early on, and the subsequent collapse was one that had been predicted for months in the analytics community when it finally came.
The silver lining is they’ll now get a pretty good draft pick – likely between eighth and 11th depending how they finish – come June, and a lot of time for some soul searching as they attempt to answer what went wrong.
“I think we have more than what we were able to accomplish,” Carlyle said. “That’s the most troubling issue here… We felt that this group coming into the start of this season would be a better hockey club than we had last year. And I don’t think we proved that.”
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