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Dejection written on players' faces as Leafs go through motions at practice @NHLdotcom

TORONTO - The Maple Leafs were in a morose mood as they went through the motions at practice Friday after being eliminated from NHL playoff contention the previous night in Boston.

Players were leaving the ice at the practice rink after 30 minutes. There seemed to be no reason to prolong the morning-after agony. Coach Paul Maurice tried to summarize the collective angst.

"There's anger and frustration and disappointment," he said. "Every five minutes it changes."

It is the first time since 1926-28 that Toronto's team has missed the NHL playoffs three years in a row. There will be sweeping changes. Interim GM Cliff Fletcher has to recommend a successor, who will probably change the coaching staff, and the roster will be raked.

"It's disappointing we didn't learn from the previous two years that we need to come out with a stronger effort up until Christmas," said captain Mats Sundin. "Both the last two years we missed the playoffs we had very similar seasons to the one we had this year where we struggled to Christmas and then we kind of realized the urgency, it seems like, or for some reason played a lot better after Christmas, but a little too late.

"We didn't learn the lesson from the previous two years and we ended up in the same situation this year so . . . there's going to be changes for all of us. We know that. Whoever comes in here is going to look at this team and, obviously, there's going to be a lot of things going on from now on."

The Leafs are at home Saturday against Montreal, Tuesday against Buffalo and Thursday against Ottawa, and wind things up in Montreal next Saturday. To a man, the players promise their best efforts.

"We owe that to our fans who have gone through the tough times with us," said Sundin.

The 37-year-old Swede will become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and remains as vague about his future as he was months ago, although one gets the impression from his comments Friday that he might be moving on.

"I always said I want to finish my career as a Toronto Maple Leaf and that hasn't changed," he said. "Saying that though, you know I understand that the position the team is in and myself.

"You miss the playoffs again, and for the third year in a row, I mean everyone is screaming for changes and something to happen. So, we'll see this summer what's going to happen with the team and with myself, too."

They played 78 games with everything on the line, and they failed.

"It's hard on everybody," said forward Matt Stajan. "You work hard all year and fight to get to the playoffs and when it's over you look back on it and see where you went wrong.

"We fought and battled our way back. We were playing meaningful games pretty much right to the end and never gave up. We win the two games this week (against Boston) and we're right there. Unfortunately, we didn't."

Vesa Toskala's goaltending was one of the few encouraging aspects of the Leafs' season. Backup Andrew Raycroft, who has seen little action this season, will now reappear in the crease.

"Razor's probably going to get some starts and it would be unfair to him if we went out there and didn't play hard," said forward Alex Steen. "For the fans, who come out every game and watch us play, it would be unfair to them as well if we didn't come out and play hard, and it would be unfair to ourselves.

"We've all tried real hard to get where we wanted to be but came up short. I think we want to finish off on a good note."

Darcy Tucker's voice could barely be heard as he answered questions while slumped in his cubicle.

"It's been a long year," he offered. "I don't think things have gone well for the team and, personally, obviously it wasn't a great year.

"Since the all-star break we've played some pretty good hockey, but we just dug ourselves too deep a hole. It's tough, but we put ourselves in this position."

He was asked if it has been the most difficult season of his career, and he didn't require time to think about his answer.

"Yup, for sure," he replied. "Any time you don't make the playoffs it's tough, but this has been particularly tough."

Jason Blake's production wasn't up to snuff either.

"Whatever happens, happens," he said of impending off-season changes. "We've got a great group of guys in here.

"It's a sad day. We'll see what happens in the off-season. Mr. Fletcher and whoever the new GM and so on and so forth . . . when we cross that bridge, then we'll know. I know everybody in Leaf country and the players are disappointed. As players, you've got to be accountable, and we didn't get the job done."

Maurice doesn't expect to be long-winded when he delivers his pre-game message to the players Saturday.

"It won't be 20 minutes long, I can tell you that for sure," he said. "It will revolve around what we do for a living."

"I hope we can give our fans something to cheer about," added Sundin.

It won't help them in the standings though. All they've got left to play for now is pride.

"You're representing the Toronto Maple Leafs and you want to do it in a classy way," said Blake. "It's disappointment, it's frustration - we're feeling all those things - but there's nothing you can do now.

"You've just got to come to work and, you know, you're representing the Toronto Maple Leafs and you've got to do it in the right way."

Just inside the entrance to the dressing room at the practice rink, there is a poster-sized photo of Punch Imlach. The Stanley Cup is on a table and Imlach has his left elbow on the trophy, and a satisfied look on his face. The picture was snapped in the 1960s, when the Leafs won four championships. There hasn't been one since 1967. By next spring, it'll be five years since the Leafs participated in a playoff game.

The rebuilding begins again.

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