Well, it was certainly fun while it lasted.
The Toronto Maple Leafs' oh-so-slim playoff hopes were finally put to rest on Tuesday night, expiring not at the Air Canada Centre but two hours down the road as the Buffalo Sabres picked up yet another two points to move beyond Toronto's reach.
Truth is, this day had been coming for a while, as despite the Leafs' dramatic rebirth since the all-star break, mathematical elimination had never been all that far off.
That they pushed it all the way until the final week of the season, after an awful 13-19-4 start to the year, was remarkable on its own.
What failed to matter at this point, however, was that the Leafs fell 3-2 in a shootout against the powerhouse Washington Capitals, hanging in the 80th game of the season despite being badly out shot by a team that suddenly looks, once again, like a Stanley Cup contender.
Even as two of Toronto's feel-good stories found the back of the net early -- with Nikolai Kulemin's 30th making it 1-0 five minutes in and Joffrey Lupul adding the 2-1 marker early in the second -- the Sabres began to pull away from the Tampa Bay Lightning on the out of town scoreboard.
Needing only a point to eliminate the Leafs, Buffalo did one better in winning 4-2 to move to 92 points, adding to their own impressive run of 14-4-4.
Toronto, meanwhile, now has only 85 and maxes out at 89, 15 better than the ugly 74 they put up a year ago but still not enough to make the playoffs this season.
"It's probably the worst feeling in hockey, other than losing in the playoffs," Phaneuf said. "Right now, [the run]still doesn't make it any better. As players, we play to play in the playoffs."
The Leafs came into this game 18-7-5 in 30 games since the all-star break, and they appeared determined to add to that total in the early going. But soon after Kulemin's opening goal, Toronto went down 5-on-3 and Capitals star Alex Ovechkin scored his 31st on a blast from the point.
The Leafs jumped out to a 2-1 lead early in the second when Phil Kessel found Lupul back door with an incredible pass for a tap-in goal, continuing a strong run for the pair.
With Washington pressing late in the second, a long shot from the point went off defenceman Luke Schenn's glove and past helpless netminder James Reimer.
With his team trailing 30-11 on the shot clock and 17 minutes left in the third, Leafs coach Ron Wilson called a timeout hoping to spark something -- anything -- in his team, but that rally never really came.
And it wouldn't have mattered even if it had.
The best Leaf on the night was again Reimer, hardly a surprise given the starring role the 23-year-old rookie has had since his first NHL start on Jan. 1. He put up 39 saves in all, including several terrific stops with his team desperately clinging to a tie late in the proceedings and several more in the shootout.
The only key save he didn't make was Capitals veteran Mike Knuble's shootout winner, the only puck to beat either netminder in the extra session.
"Taking nothing away from the way the Leafs have played in the last month and a half, he was a big difference maker," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said after the game. "We had some real 10-bell chances and he rose to the task. I think the Leafs have got a good goalie there."
"He's given us a chance to win, night in and night out," Phaneuf said. "Again tonight, he was exceptional."
Of all the lights that have suddenly turned on for Toronto the past two months, Reimer's has been by far the brightest, and it'll be his play, as much as anything, that will likely determine how close they get come to ending a seven-year drought next April.
The fans have already embraced him -- chanting "Rei-mer, Rei-mer" late in Tuesday's game -- and for now, his play will have to be enough.
Because for all the heroics and talk of what's to come, this Leafs season will end on Saturday the way so many have of late in Toronto.
On a good run but out of the playoffs.
"We played our hearts out," Reimer said. "We did everything we could. We've fallen short right now, but I'm proud of the way we've battled the past couple months."
"In the end, we'll feel good about this and build on it," Wilson said of his team's second half. "All the experience we gained playing in hard games is only going to make us better."
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