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Leafs eliminated from playoffs with loss to 'Canes

by Dennis Ryan
TORONTO -- For the seventh straight season, the Toronto Maple Leafs will not take part in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Carolina Hurricanes eliminated the Leafs from postseason contention with a 3-0 victory at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night, keeping their own faint playoff hopes alive. Cam Ward stopped 32 shots for his fifth shutout of the season, dealing the Leafs a franchise-worst 10th straight home-ice loss.   

To add insult to injury, former Leafs Tim Brent and Jay Harrison scored for Carolina. Jussi Jokinen had the other tally for the Hurricanes, who chased Leafs starting goaltender Jonas Gustavsson early in the second period. Gustavsson was showered with boos as he skated to the bench.

"You want to come up and stop those shots no matter what happens," Gustavsson said.  "Especially in a tight game when it's nothing-nothing, or they're up one or two goals, you want to find a way to stop those."

Carolina took control in the opening period, outshooting the Leafs 11-5. Jokinen beat Gustavsson with a backhand from the right circle at 13:05 to give Carolina a 1-0 lead.

The fans voiced their displeasure when Brent fired home a high wrister at 18:19. After a video review, the Hurricanes had a 2-0 lead.   

Just 37 seconds into the second period, Harrison beat Gustavsson with a high wrister from the left faceoff circle to increase the Hurricanes' lead to 3-0. Toronto coach Randy Carlyle immediately gave Gustavsson the hook and signalled for emergency call-up Jussi Rynnas to make his NHL debut. Rynnas had been recalled just hours earlier when projected starter James Reimer was scratched with an upper-body injury.

According to Carlyle, the breakdowns were not just in goal but throughout the team.

"I was more disappointed with the way we turned the puck over in the middle of the ice in the first period and we tried to play more a cute game than I've seen this team play in the last little while," Carlyle said. "And consequently it left the opposition to dictate the transition game against us early in the hockey game, and whatever they shot at the net seemed to find a way to go through our goaltender."

Carlyle was particularly concerned about the home-ice struggles.

"We seem to play a more relaxed game on the road," Carlyle said. "We seem to play a more intense game, a more conservative game, whatever word you want to use. We've been in more hockey games on the road and found ways to get points and that's been the frustrating part for us as a coaching staff."

Toronto's play picked up after the goalie switch, but the Leafs were unable to find the back of the net despite outshooting the Hurricanes 32-22 overall. Ward's best stop came when he denied Mike Brown on a breakaway with just over a minute left in the second period.

"We got off to a good start," Ward said. "We were ready and we carried the majority of the play in the first period. It was a solid 60-minute effort by our team."

While the win keeps the Hurricanes alive in the playoff race, they are nine points back of the eighth place Sabres with just five games to play. Next up for Carolina is a home date with the Jets on Friday night.

With the playoffs no longer a possibility for Toronto, all that is left of a once-promising season is to play out the final five games. For a team that sat solidly in sixth spot in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 6, the collapse has been catastrophic. Having lost 19 of their last 24 games the Maple Leafs now sit in 14th place in the Eastern Conference.

"It snowballed on us. We lost a lot of tight games and we could not recover or find a way out of it as a group," Phaneuf said. "We haven't played well enough. It's very disappointing.

"You start every year with one goal and that's to win, and the first part of that is to make the playoffs. When you're out of that race, it's not a very good feeling. We've struggled and it's very disappointing to be mathematically out of it."
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