- Most of the Maple Leafs were on hand at Air Canada Centre Sunday to clean out their lockers and ask themselves the big question: when was this tortuous season lost?
Mathematically, the rough time of death was March 27 in Boston, but by then the body had already gone cold. The night before, the Bruins defeated the Leafs 6-2 to relegate the team’s playoff hopes to the level of infinitesimal.
The real end, of course, came much earlier.
Was the deal sealed when the Leafs managed to win a comparatively skimpy five of the nine home games the team was gifted with in October?
Did it happen when free-agent acquisition Jason Blake managed just three goals in the first 15 games? Blake’s goal total would fall from 40 in his final year with the Islanders to 15 in his debut with the Leafs.
Was the crippling blow delivered October 15 in Buffalo when the Leafs gave up a two-goal lead and lost the overtime when defenceman Bryan McCabe rifled the puck into his own net?
McCabe had his own theory.
“Our months of January and February, we went in a pretty big tailspin. When you look back, that stretch might have hurt us the most. We had to battle back all the way in. Down the stretch, it’s always tough to get points.”
Was it the five-game road losing streak in January? Or were the seeds for disaster Dec. 18 when Alexei Ponikarovsky hesitated before dunking a puck into the empty net against the Hurricanes? Cory Stillman picked Ponikarovsky's pocket and a few seconds later, the Leafs were 3-2 losers. Ponikarovsky, who had pocked 11 goals in the two and a half months of the season immediately went on a 12-game scoring drought.
Two nights later, in Tampa, Pavel Kubina veered into the high slot with a glorious scoring opportunity. His stick exploded upon impact, the puck was whipped to Vincent Lecavalier and the Leafs had lost again.
Pick a moment. In the big picture, the story is the same. The Leafs did what they have done too often; they fell too fast too far to recover a playoff position.
“It’s a lot of pressure, mentally and physically, when you leave yourself such a small margin for error,” said Mats Stajan.
As expected, the air was melancholy as the players dribbled out to meet the media. Captain Mats Sundin was not on hand. Neither was Blake. Coach Paul Maurice and interim general Cliff Fletcher will speak on Monday.
The lone bright spot might have come from Matt Stajan who said there was no chance he would be getting a no-trade clause. The no-trade figured prominently at the trade deadline when five players with the clause: captain Mats Sundin, defencemen Tom Kaberle, McCabe and Pavel Kubina, and forward Darcy Tucker refusing an offer out of town.
“I’ve said all along I want to be a Leaf,” reaffirmed McCabe. “I think it would be a great place to bring a championship to.”
McCabe said there were plenty of positives to be taken from the season. “We played really hard down the stretch, won a lot of games, but didn’t get much help. We got it down to four points, a home and home against Boston, but we kind of just faded after that. That was disappointing but the way we played before that was great. I think we showed a lot of resolve.”
There is something to that. Even the most dismal seasons yield positives.
Nik Antropov enjoyed a relatively healthy season. Antropov played 72 games and scored 26 goals.
“Personally, I had a great year, probably my best,” Antropov said. “Team-wise, the playoffs was the goal we set we didn’t achieve it. It was frustrating.”
Matt Stajan emerged as a dependable two-way centreman with 16 goals. Anton Stralman and Jiri Tlusty made more than satisfactory NHL debuts and played 108 games between them.
Vesa Toskala emerged as the undisputed number one goalie with a 33-25-6 slate and Pavel Kubina flourished when given big minutes and power play time with McCabe out of the lineup for 18 games with a hand injury.
Still, as the players like to say, it is what it is.
“There were a lot of ups and downs but the bottom line, we weren’t good enough,” Stajan said. “We’ve been saying that for three years. It’s not fun.
“It’s going to be a long summer here.”