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Leafs clinch playoff spot ending nine years of frustration

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Ken Rodney, TSN.ca
4/20/2013 9:59:07 PM
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The Toronto Maple Leafs finally ended their playoff drought that had stretched to nine years - beginning when the 2003-04 team was eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers at the hands of Jeremy Roenick's Game 6 overtime winner. 

And it has been a journey of misses and near-misses for an NHL franchise steeped in tradition.

The 2006-07 season will be the one that sticks out in the minds of Leafs fans the most, as the team missed the playoffs by a single point in a very dramatic ending.

Trailing the New York Islanders by one point for the eighth and final playoff spot heading into their last game, the Leafs rallied on goals by Carlo Colaiacovo, Bryan McCabe and Kyle Wellwood to steal a 6-5 victory from the Montreal Canadiens to put them in a postseason position.

Unfortunately for Leaf Nation, the Islanders still had one game in hand to be played the very next day and goaltender Wade Dubielewicz backstopped them to a shootout victory over a New Jersey Devils squad led in goal by backup Scott Clemmensen. And with that, the Isles vaulted into the playoffs at the expense of the Leafs.

The season prior (2005-06) was another near miss, as two points separated the Leafs and the final spot in the standings. They were beaten to the post by the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

The Leafs were one of the hottest teams down the stretch as they won nine of their final 12 games and picked up points in all but one of them behind the surprisingly stellar play of third-string goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin.

The Lightning, however, did just enough by earning shootout and overtime victories over the Carolina Hurricanes in a late-season home and home set that relegated the Leafs to the outside looking in at the playoffs for the first time since 1998.

Outside of those two campaigns, however, the Leafs have found themselves out of the postseason race as the conclusion of the season approached. In 2009-10 they finished with 74 points to finish last in the Eastern Conference and second-last in the league.

With 10th-, 12th- (twice) and 13th-place finishes in the Eastern Conference, it's been nothing but heartache for fans of the Blue and White.

To put some perspective on how much time has passed since Toronto last played for a shot at the Cup, you only have to look at the team's recent history of futility.

During the playoff drought, the Leafs have gone through four different head coaches.

Pat Quinn was the last man in charge of a playoff game. He followed the 2003-04 campaign with one more year at the helm before being replaced by Paul Maurice, who at the time was the head coach of the Leafs' AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies.

Maurice coached the team for two seasons, compiling a 76-66-22 record before being fired and replaced by former San Jose Sharks head coach Ron Wilson.

Wilson's tenure lasted three-and-a-half seasons, coming to an end last year after tallying a 130-135-45 mark with the team.

Current head coach Randy Carlyle took over late in the season and finished with a 6-9-3 record heading into the 2012-13 season.

When the Florida Panthers qualified for the playoffs in 2012-13 the Leafs were left with the dubious distinction as the only NHL team that hadn't made the postseason since the 2004-05 lockout.

On top of that, there are only four players from the 2003-04 Leafs playoff roster that remain in the NHL - New Jersey Devils forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, Winnipeg Jets forward Nik Antropov, Calgary Flames forward Matt Stajan and Montreal Canadiens defenceman Tomas Kaberle. Devils forward Steve Sullivan is the only other current NHL forward to have played in a playoff game for the Leafs, having done so in 1998-99.

Also, five players from that team have gone on to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame - forwards Mats Sundin, Joe Nieuwendyk and Ron Francis, defenceman Brian Leetch and goaltender Ed Belfour.

Maple Leafs celebrate (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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