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-Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson behind the bench during second period NHL action against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Florida November 10, 2010.


There was a different mood in the Toronto Maple Leafs' dressing room on Monday afternoon, as the reality of their situation begins to sink in.

One with just a hint of resignation.

While many players talked about how anything can happen - "Crazier things have happened before," defenceman Luke Schenn suggested - others began to talk about next season and what they can do differently to avoid a similar fate.

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With three games to play, including Tuesday night at home against the Washington Capitals, that's how grim the standings look for the Leafs, who need to win out and have the Buffalo Sabres lose all of their remaining games in regulation time.

That the Leafs have fallen into such a desperate situation despite going 6-1-0 in the past two weeks is a source of enormous frustration for the players, many of whom spent an off day Sunday living and dying with every goal in games played by the Sabres, New York Rangers and ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes.

"We all kind of hold our breath every Buffalo, Carolina and Rangers game now," centre Tim Brent said. "As painful as it is, I think it'll be a lesson that a lot of guys will take from this year and use next year to make sure we're not in the same spot."

"I think we've kind of found out first hand, it doesn't matter how good a second half you have," netminder James Reimer added. "If you don't have a good first half, it might not mean anything."

Leafs coach Ron Wilson continued Monday to put a positive spin on what will almost certainly be a third consecutive playoff miss under his watch, this time pointing to his team missing captain Dion Phanuef with an injury during one of its worst stretches of the season.

Toronto went 5-8-3 in 16 games without Phaneuf after he suffered a deep skate cut to his leg in early November.

"With Dion in the lineup, in terms of points percentage, we're about .590," Wilson said, overshooting the actual figure (.563). "That would get you in the playoffs in any conference.

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"I just feel bad that, if we don't make the playoffs, that we worked this hard and our guys don't get rewarded for it. But the future is obviously bright if we can keep this group together and add a few pieces here and there. We're going to be in pretty good shape."

Even so, with only five days remaining in their season, all the Leafs can do is keep an eye on the out of town scoreboard and hope they won't be mathematically eliminated on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Should they find a way to beat the Capitals to remain alive, Toronto will have to win the following night against the New Jersey Devils after an overnight flight to Newark.

The Leafs will then finish the season on Saturday at home against the Montreal Canadiens in a game that may only be about playing for pride.

It's not a pleasant place to be, given their 18-7-5 record since the all-star break, but the players realize they're paying now for all of their losses in the fall.

"At the end of the day, you don't want to be in the situation where you're hoping for other teams to do you favours," winger Joffrey Lupul said. "In my experience, it never seems to happen. But, at the end of the year, if we're frustrated about anything, it should be some of the losing streaks.

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"That's what should motivate us."

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