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The Maple Leafs’ Dion Phaneuf shoots on New York Rangers goalie Antti Raanta on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015.Seth Wenig/The Associated Press

So the Toronto Maple Leafs' win streak is over after three games.

And it sure ended ugly.

In a tight, seesaw battle with the hottest team in hockey for 59 minutes, the Leafs were dropped 4-3 by the New York Rangers on Sunday night when Mats Zuccarello scored with 54 seconds left.

The Leafs had deserved at least a point, given the gritty effort, on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, against a 13-2-2 team.

Unlike a lot of recent nights, they didn't get it.

Going in, the Leafs had picked up points in six of their past seven games, a surprising burst up the standings for a team expected to live in the NHL's basement all year. But their 4-1-2 hot streak wasn't exactly the stuff of legend. Goaltender James Reimer had been excellent – with a .945 save percentage in seven straight starts – but his team has given him a fairly heavy load, with 34 shots against a night.

Jonathan Bernier did a fine job of undoing the "good goaltending" side of their run on Sunday when he allowed a blooper from centre ice midway through the game and then a bad rebound on the winner, the latest backbreaking goals in a season full of them for the man supposed to be the No. 1.

But there have been other positives. The goals have started to come, from throughout the lineup, with three different scorers (Peter Holland, Joffrey Lupul and Dion Phaneuf) again in New York.

And thanks to the coaching staff's diligent work, Toronto has been excellent on both special teams throughout this stretch, including producing six power-play goals.

It's at even strength where there have been legitimate concerns, especially with the team's two checking lines (centred by Nick Spaling and Byron Froese) spending a lot of time in their end. The Leafs have only been a 45-per-cent possession team of late, which is a tough way to win over the long haul.

It's also not the kind of hockey Mike Babcock wants his team to play.

But what that little run by the Leafs means more than anything is their season isn't going to be over by U.S. Thanksgiving. Babcock's given them enough structure and Reimer enough saves that they can hang around in the Eastern Conference for at least another month or so.

After all, they're only five points back of third in their division.

Given up for dead after a 1-7-2 October, they've managed to claw past a few teams in the standings (Columbus, Edmonton and Calgary) and would have jumped four more by beating the Rangers.

Getting that close to 23rd after 18 games counts as exceeding expectations.

Getting that close to 23rd after 18 games could also terrify those fans concerned only with how good a draft pick the Leafs will get out of this season.

They need not worry.

After Sunday's heartbreaking loss, the Leafs are on pace for only 64 points. That's firmly in bottom-three territory, and that's before team president Brendan Shanahan and his management team begin dismantling the roster in the spring.

And yes, that is coming, regardless of where they are in the standings. Shanahan has been adamant about this season being in service to those down the line, and the only path that makes sense with a lineup filled with veterans on short-term deals is to unload who they can for futures before the trade deadline.

Last season, they did so to great effect, icing a skeletal roster in March and April and falling deep into the NHL basement.

Result: They got Mitch Marner at fourth overall. The same Mitch Marner who, at 18 years old, has two points a game in the Ontario Hockey League right now.

Adding another talented kid is still the most likely outcome for this season. Even with all these recent wins, the Leafs ceiling remains low – especially if they stay true to the plan to keep William Nylander and their other young talents in the minors.

The changes the NHL has made to the draft lottery for next June have also dramatically lowered the benefits of tanking. The team that finishes 30th has only about a 50-50 chance of getting a top-three pick. The team in second last has only a slightly higher chance of being there than whoever finishes fifth or sixth last.

Even if the Leafs win more games than anyone expected, that'll have benefits. The players they want to trade – like Lupul and Phaneuf – will be worth more to other teams. And the players they want to keep – like Morgan Rielly or Nazem Kadri –will have proven their value to the organization.

Eight months ago, it looked like there was little to salvage from this roster.

Now, with points in so many recent games and optimism building, that's no longer the case.

Long term, that could well be more important than getting marginally better odds in a draft that appears to have enough good prospects to go around.

So, win a bit now, lose more later and still draft in the top 10 – and the Leafs can call this a successful rebuilding season.