TAMPA – The Maple Leafs best player ambled out of the Tampa Times Forum sorting through a gamut of emotions, mostly embarrassment and disappointment for the events of another epic spring of failure.
There will be no playoff hockey in the city of Toronto for the eighth time in the past nine seasons. This 18-wheeler veered off the road once and for all on a cloudy and cool night in Tampa, another stunning late-season collapse destroying what seemed all but certain less than one month earlier.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed – disappointed for Leafs Nation," said Phil Kessel, thick red stubble dotting his face after the team's 10th loss in the past 12 games. "Obviously it's not good enough. I haven't been good enough for the last 15 games. I need to be better."
Boasting 37 goals and 80 points on the year, the 26-year-old carried the Leafs for the better part of two months in early 2014 – along with Jonathan Bernier – helping to mask the troubles of a flawed club en route to 15 wins in 22 games.
He had a mesmerizing 35 points in that stretch – not to mention a dominant Olympics.
But when he cooled (which was inevitable given the scorching run he was on) so too did the Leafs. Without Kessel and first-line amigos James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak piling up points on the regular and Bernier no longer performing like a superhero (James Reimer's struggles notwithstanding), cracks that lingered beneath the surface suddenly became too glaring to ignore amid a losing streak that hit eight sour games.
Worrying defensive issues were unmasked for all to see, an endless parade of breakaways and odd-man rushes highlighting the troubles. A dominant power-play fizzled – one big factor in the top line's slowdown – coupling with a bad penalty kill for unsavoury special teams. Support staff behind Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Bozak failed to emerge. And a team that promised to be harder to play against at season's open remained mostly the opposite.
"Obviously we didn't play well enough," Kessel said. "I think both ends of the rink we didn't play well enough. We obviously didn't get it done."
Back in mid-March, after a triumphant victory over the Kings – their second on the daunting California triangle – Toronto sat ahead of every team in the East but Boston and Pittsburgh, icing a three-point lead for that matter on Tampa (who is now 11 points up after Tuesday's game). There was talk of home-ice in the first round of the playoffs and a confrontation with either the Lightning or Canadiens. And then another disturbing swoon, from which they could not escape happened.
"After that we never got our groove back," Kessel said. "The last 15 games we didn't get it done and that's why I'm really disappointed. We just need to be better. Obviously I'm not happy the way this has ended here. I don't think anyone is."
Kessel has just three goals and seven points in the past 13 games – just four of those coming during the eight-game slide. Perhaps worn down by heavy minutes in an Olympic year, he could no longer shoulder the kind of burden his club required for survival or maybe the bounces, as he always describes them, simply went the other way.
The Leafs are just 7-23-3 when their leading scorer fails to record a point.
And yet Kessel still sits sixth in league scoring and fifth in goals, boasting the kind of sterling numbers one would expect of a top flight offensive player.
There he was though after the sting of another looming spring without playoffs, bearing more than his fair share of the brunt for the second late season collapse in the past three years. It was the kind of accountability required for growth from this kind of wreckage and a sign of leadership from a player not known for anything of the kind.
"Obviously I'm really disappointed and I feel like I've let a lot of people down," he said with some emotion.
"(The fans) expect a lot from us. They love us. We need to be better these last 15 games. I think everyone's pretty disappointed."
1. Cloud of Emotions
A rarity for the Leafs head coach, Randy Carlyle didn't say a word to his team after the 3-0 loss to Tampa, which sealed their playoff fate in conjunction with a Columbus victory. "Numb and shock" were among the emotions Carlyle was experiencing afterward along with extreme disappointment and embarrassment. Why embarrassment?
"Because I think we have more than what we were able to accomplish and that's the most troubling issue here is we just didn't find a way to compete to a level that was necessary and execute to a level [that was necessary]," Carlyle said, looking defeated. "We felt that this group coming into the start of the season would be a better hockey club than we had last year and I don't think we proved that."
Carlyle, whose future remains cloudy at best, said plenty of time would be taken in the days ahead to analyze what exactly happened and why. "There's going to be lots of questions and lots of prodding going on on the answers to that," he said. "We don't have the answers right now as to why it happened, but we're all responsible. We win and lose as a team and that's basically the way we have to approach it now."
2. PP Demise
One of the more prominent factors in the cooling off of the Leafs top line was their inability to score on the power-play after the Olympic break.
Kessel has just one power-play point in the past 23 games and hasn't scored there since Feb. 1. van Riemsdyk, who leads the Leafs with nine power-play markers himself, hasn't scored with the man advantage since Jan. 30 and has gone 24 consecutive games there without even a single point.
Toronto's power-play went 0-3 against the Lightning and is 8-57 after the Olympics (14 per cent). The unit still ranks fifth overall this season.
3. Not 100%
Limited and still dealing with pain in the left ankle which sidelined him for 56 games earlier this season, Dave Bolland did not play Tuesday against the Lightning and may be done for the year.
"What's happened is he's aggravated it and it's bothered him," Carlyle said.
Carlyle had hoped to employ Bolland more regularly after his return from the injury last month, but the 27-year-old is simply not at 100 per cent. He garnered between 9-13 minutes most nights upon return, even rolling the ankle in some situations according to Carlyle and requiring up to 10 minutes to get back for another shift.
Bolland's arduous recovery from the severed tendon took longer than was expected, but it appears that even a near five-month absence may not have been enough. The Mimico native is an unrestricted free agent this summer. It's worth wondering whether he'll play again for the Leafs with only two meaningless games remaining.
4. Carter Ashton
It was more than two years ago that Carter Ashton was shipped from the Lightning organization to Toronto in exchange for towering defender Keith Aulie. And while the 23-year-old has dipped his toes into the NHL waters here and there he's yet to establish himself in any firm capacity.
"It's been one of those that when he's come here and played with us his confidence level seems to erode whereas when he goes back to the Marlies he's the best player," Carlyle said of Ashton, a first round pick of Tampa in 2009.
Ashton has scored 16 goals and totaled 23 points in 24 games with the Marlies this season, but has yet to score with the Leafs in 47 games, adding just three assists.
Part of the disconnect would seem to lie in the opportunity he's been granted under Carlyle. Playing mostly on unskilled fourth lines, Ashton has averaged six minutes per game this season, held under four minutes in nine of 32 games.
"We think that we have to bridge some of the opportunity for him and maybe play him a little higher in the lineup versus playing him in the fourth line position," Carlyle said. "Let him play with some skilled players and give him more of an opportunity with minutes in the hockey game."
Recalled on emergency status with Joffrey Lupul sidelined for the remainder of the regular season and Bolland sore, Ashton played Tuesday alongside Nazem Kadri and David Clarkson and totaled 12 minutes.
"I don't think it's a question of my confidence in my abilities," he said. "It's just translating it to the NHL."
5. Check the IR
One question rose above all when the Maple Leafs signed Lupul to a five-year extension in Jan. 2013: could the now 30-year-old stay healthy?
More than one year later and the answer would be well, sort of.
Though he'll miss the final the three games of the regular season with a knee injury, Lupul did manage 69 games this season – totaling 22 goals and 44 points – the most he's played in one campaign since 2008-09 when he dressed in 79 games for the Flyers.
But over the past three seasons, Lupul will have missed 59 games with a variety of injuries, which include a dislocated shoulder, fractured forearm, concussion, bruised foot, groin tear, and now an injury to the knee.
And while well attuned to the maintenance of his body – a transformation that took place as he aged – it's worth wondering whether Lupul can stay healthy as he enters his 30's considering the challenge it became in his mid to late 20's. Saturday's game against Winnipeg, which he left because of the knee injury, was the 600th in his career.
He underwent successful arthroscopic surgery on Tuesday.
8 – Times in the past nine seasons that the Leafs have missed the playoffs.
2-10-0 – Leafs record in the past 12 games.
47 – Career NHL games for Carter Ashton, who still has yet to record a goal.
24 – Consecutive games without a power-play point for James van Riemsdyk.
1 – Power-play point for Phil Kessel since Feb. 1.
0 – Victories in a start for James Reimer since Jan. 21.
8-57 – Toronto power-play after the Olympic break.
3 – Times this season that the Leafs have been shutout.
7-23-3 – Leafs record this season when Kessel fails to record a point.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 20.3% (5th)
Season: 78.2% (28th)
Quote of the Night
"Obviously I'm really disappointed and I feel like I've let a lot of people down."
-Phil Kessel, on the disappointment of playoff elimination.
Quote of the Night II
"Because I think we have more than what we were able to accomplish and that's the most troubling issue here is we just didn't find a way to compete to a level that was necessary and execute to a level [that was necessary]."
-Randy Carlyle, on why he was embarrassed by the Leafs late season meltdown.
The Leafs conclude their swing through Florida with a Thursday clash against the Panthers.