It was a death by a thousand small cuts.
The Boston Bruins beat the Maple Leafs 6-2 Tuesday night to effectively end the Leafs playoff hopes. The Leafs have five games to make up six points on Boston but the real issue is the teams above Toronto. Florida, Buffalo and Washington are ahead in the standings. This is the little train that couldn’t.
The Leafs had little jump against a Bruins team that had lost nine of its last 11. An early goal by Glen Murray unsettled things. Second period goals by David Krejci and Marco Sturm lifted the Bruins to a 3-0 lead but a Jason Blake goal late in the second cut the margin down to one. Shawn Thornton and Phil Kessel
scored in the third for Boston. Alexei Ponikarovsky replied for the Leafs.
“We were playing a little too much of their game,” said goalie Vesa Toskala. “Tough night and for sure, tough loss.”
“We’re proud of the way we battled. We’re not happy with tonight, obviously, but sometimes games go like this,” said Matt Stajan. “ You’re going to have to battle through the bad bounces and kill that extra penalty off and today we didn’t. I don’t know what else to say. It’s disappointing.”
“You keep battling until the end,” said Ponikarovsky. “Whatever you’ve got, that’s probably what you deserve.”
Referees Brad Meier and Dan Marouelli did not enjoy banner nights. The Leafs were hit with three fishy penalties but you know, in the big picture, I’m not sure the whole lost season can be blamed on referees.
When a train meets a ravine, it’s often instructive to examine the tracks.
It is this way with losing teams the world over.
Since you have to start somewhere, there was a time where the future was bright for Mark Bell, acquired by Leafs GM John Ferguson along with Vesa Toskala in what seemed a pretty canny deal.
Then the league suspended Bell for 15 games because his part in a hit-and run. He never hit his stride and missed a month with a broken orbital bone. Projected as a second line player, Bell has two goals and seven points in 30 games.
What does Mark Bell have to do with the fact that the Leafs seem destined to miss the playoffs for the third straight year? Not much, except for his staggering bad fortune was far from the worst hard luck story of the season.
That one belongs to Jason Blake who signed a five-year deal with the Leafs as a free agent. A few weeks into his tenure, he was told he had a highly curable form of leukemia. Blake, a 40-goal scorer the year before will not make a correlation between and his 15 goals and we do not wish to sound course but no one could blame a Cancer patient for diminished output at work.
Kyle Wellwood showed himself completely unready for second-line status, injured his abdomen and was called out by Maurice for his notoriously poor conditioning. He has eight whole goals.
We need not get into key injuries including groin and knee injuries to Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov when they were needed most, the plummeting stock of goalie Andrew Raycroft who went from 37 wins last year to two this season, the usual Carlo Colaiacovo injuries (best line from Paul Maurice, “for the love of God, isn’t this enough.”)
There was Bryan McCabe losing a game in Buffalo when he dunked the puck into his own net and a game lost in Carolina when Alexei Ponikarovsky lingered in front of an empty net in the last minute. The Canes came back to win the game in overtime. How about the Pavel Kubina exploding stick that resulted in loss in Tampa Bay at Christmastime?
The Leafs fired John Ferguson and brought in Cliff Fletcher who was limited in his dealing by five no-trade or no-movement clauses and the Leafs played their way out of the best spots in the entry draft lottery.
Yep. It’s been a dandy.
As for bright sides, well there have been a few. The Leafs have their goalie. Vesa Toskala has proved himself a workhorse with 28 straight starts.
Alex Steen and Mats Stajan delivered their best hockey of the season for the homestretch.
Kubina proved his worth in the late season. Rookies Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman showed themselves to be NHL ready and the great Sundin remains unblemished by time.
When it came time to answer the media’s questions, the young leaders came out. Stajan, Ponikarovsky, Steen, Ian White. If there is some solace to be gained, maybe it should come from that single fact.
The season ends April 5 in Montreal. That’s 11 days.