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Leafs, Reimer Almost There

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

RELATED: A Closer Look: Playoff Chase Ends For Leafs | Recap
VIDEO: Game In Six | Wilson | Reimer | Schenn | Lupul | Phaneuf
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That sound you hear is the tiny piercing of a million tender hearts.

The sound that follows is the raising of the bar.

The Maple Leafs’ playoff push died Tuesday when the Buffalo Sabres beat Tampa 4-2. A few moments later, the Leafs would emerge 3-2 losers to Washington via the shootout.

Once 14 points out of eighth place, the Leafs’ drive for the post-season died on the doorstep not because they weren’t up to grade, but because their rivals were as well.

“As well as we played over the last two months, the Rangers and Buffalo, those are the teams who deserve to be there,” said the Leafs’ Joffrey Lupul. And he was right.

The Leafs won six of their last eight games. They went 24-13-7 in the New Year. Extrapolate that to a full campaign and you come up with a 100-point season.

That’s an altitude enjoyed by teams considered to have a legitimate chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

Think about that for a minute. For half the season, the Leafs played not like playoff wannabees, but Stanley Cup contenders.

They are not Stanley Cup contenders, the dominance exhibited by a red-hot Washington team showed that. But the version of the Toronto Maple Leafs that ends the season will be profoundly different than the one that started the campaign.

Look no further than Reimer who delivered the highlight of the night with an unlikely diving save on Marcus Johansson in the third period. A few seconds later, Keith Aulie hogtied the great Alexander Ovechkin as he tried to sashay to the net. The evening did not lack for portents.

Like when Reimer put his post-game media chat on hold to sign a little girl’s autograph and engage her while the world waited.

“That’s life right there,” he said. “We’re playing a game, we’re having fun. To see how much they enjoy things, that’s the fun part.”

A few moments later he said he wouldn’t change. “The only reason I have had success is because I worked hard and relied on my teammates,” he said. Neither one of those two things seem likely to change soon.

Reimer, of course, was the reason the Leafs got to overtime. Washington outshot Toronto 40-20 in regulation and naturally enough enjoyed a corresponding advantage in chances.

“He gave us every chance to get a point, if not two,” coach Ron Wilson said. “If you look at their game-tying goal, it was a bit of a fluke.”

True enough. The Leafs were hanging on to a 2-1 lead when John Erskine aimed a shot toward the Leafs cage that drifted well wide. Luke Schenn reached for the wobbling puck. It bounced off his glove and fell into the net.

Nikolai Kulemin scored his 30th and Joffrey Lupul added his 14th. Alexander Ovechkin scored his 31st of the season and 300th of his career with a power-play bullet. The Caps Mike Knuble was the only one of eight shooters to score during the shoot-out.

With about a minute left to play, the Leafs got word on the bench that Buffalo had won.

Time began on January 1, the day Reimer took the net for good and you will look long and hard to find a campaign that so dramatically delineates itself between good and bad on one pivot point.

How late in the season the turnaround came no longer matters. Dead, as the actuaries like to tell you, is dead.

But even if the season is gone, it is not wasted. And more importantly, an era may well be taking shape, an era where the Leafs can engage the NHL’s best and hottest team and take them to a shootout on the wings of a rookie goalie who thinks that on the night his team is eliminated he is lucky to be able to sign an autograph.

Hard-working, skilled, but lucky. And maybe because he feels lucky, you should too.
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