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Siegel: Slide ends, but Leaf playoff hopes still slim

Jonas Siegel
4/2/2014 9:19:38 AM
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TORONTO – It may have just been the last gasps of a wounded hockey club on life support, but it kept the Maple Leafs faint playoff hopes alive – barely – for another day.

They hung on to win (and picked up points) for the first time in more than two weeks Tuesday night, halting a drudging eight-game losing streak with a narrow 3-2 win over Calgary at a quiet ACC. "Well, it beats losing that's for sure," Cody Franson said of the Toronto's first win since Mar. 13.

Masterpiece it was not.

Standing nervously even with the rebuilding Flames after 40 minutes, the Leafs pulled ahead on third period goals from Dave Bolland and David Clarkson – the first for the 30-year-old Clarkson in nearly two months – before hanging on in the dying seconds of regulation.

"I don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves because we didn't paint a Mona Lisa here tonight," said a relieved, but still cautious Randy Carlyle afterward. "It's been a long time. It's been too long. It's a much better feeling than what we've been able to enjoy here over the last while, that's for sure."

Close and unpleasing as it may have been, it was a win no less for a club that's found all too many ways to lose amid a collapse that's all but shattered their once certain playoff entry.

After their last win in mid-March – a resilient 3-2 victory in Los Angeles – the Leafs stood three points up on the Canadiens and Lightning, six ahead of the Blue Jackets and a seemingly insurmountable nine up on the physically beaten Red Wings.

More than two weeks without a point destroyed that cushion and then some.

Montreal and Tampa stormed far ahead for control of second and third in the Atlantic division – 93 points apiece – Toronto (82 points) trailing Columbus by a point (83) and Detroit by two (84) for the final two wild card positions in the East – both have two games in hand and more regulation/overtime wins.

All of which makes their playoff hopes with five games to go razor-thin at best with an especially daunting Thursday night clash with Boston ahead – the Bruins have raced to the top of the NHL with 15 wins in the past 16 games (15-0-1).

Asked before Tuesday morning if he believed his team still had a realistic opportunity to land a second straight playoff berth, Carlyle responded with whatever hope he could muster.

"It's realistic if you win," he said. "We've got to win the first one. That's the bottom line.

"We can't change what's happened. We don't like what's happened. We're not comfortable with what's happened but move on. That's what our focus is."

Carlyle said he'd enjoy that first win for five, maybe 10 minutes. He knows one does little to alter the fortunes of a team clinging to the ropes and all five might not even be enough. Hope is still just hanging on for life.

Five Points

1. Rare Bright Spot

David Clarkson hasn't had much to celebrate in a lost first season with the Leafs, but he found a little light with a breakaway goal in the third period on Tuesday night. The goal, his fifth of the season, snapped a 16-game pointless drought and was his first since Feb. 4.

"It's no secret, it's been tough," he said of a season in which he's mustered just 11 points, looking lost more often than not. "Personally, I'm not happy with the season. [But] I hold myself accountable. I'm someone that's got to be better."

"Numbers aren't always everything," said Franson in defence of Clarkson afterward. "Clarkie's been a guy that's gone out and worked hard every night for us. He's tried to be very physical and create a lot on our cycles. You can't judge a guy just by numbers. I think he's brought a lot more to the table than people give him credit for."

2. Kessel's Pain

The stick came down on the bench, shattering into pieces at the frustrated one-hand chop of Phil Kessel. The 26-year-old had just taken another puck to the bruised right foot he's been bothered with since Saturday, storming off the ice in obvious pain and disgust.

"He had the sign on his foot obviously," Carlyle said with some humour.

Kessel did not practice Monday and remained off the ice ahead of the tilt with Calgary on Tuesday morning. Still searching for the first 40-goal campaign of his career, he remains stuck on 36 goals and 77 points, totaling 17 minutes and 36 seconds against the Flames – his lowest total since a Jan. 23 beatdown in Dallas.

The Leafs improved to just 7-22-2 when he does not a record a point.

3. Bernier Post-Olympic

Four goals had passed Jonathan Bernier in each of his previous three starts after returning from a nagging groin injury, but on Tuesday, just two of a tame 24 shots slipped by in victory.

"It was nice, actually," he said of the comparatively quiet night.

Stellar from October to February, Bernier actually had his worst month of the season following the Olympic break in March, compiling a .907 percentage in eight starts. It was a rare dip from a goaltender who's been ultra-consistent; Bernier posted a save percentage of at least .923 in four of the previous five months.

He improved to 6-8-2 when stopping between 20-29 shots this season.

4. Distractions

In hopes of distracting the mind from a playoff chance-sapping skid, Jake Gardiner opted to see a movie Monday, taking in the new Russell Crowe flick, Noah. "It's tough," he said of getting away from a losing streak that finally ended Tuesday. "You look on Twitter or TV, it's pretty much what everyone's talking about right now. But we're kind of used to that. We've had some ups and downs throughout the season and throughout the past, you've just got to take it in stride."

5. Distractions II

Almost at the end of his rookie season in the NHL, Morgan Rielly has learned at least one tool to insulate himself from the often high-pitched noise of Toronto. "I don't check Twitter as often," Rielly said. "It's hard though because when you're out eating at Earl's or something, it's on TV and there's people talking about our skid, trade rumours or how we've been playing. But honestly, you can't really worry about it too much as you all know. It's just a matter of keeping concentrated on just playing the game and not what everybody's saying."

Avoiding Twitter was a lesson the 20-year-old picked up in training camp, "when you're not sure if you're going to make the team or not and there's tweets about you not making the team or there's tweets about you on the team," he said. "You can't be too concerned about what's going on out there. You've just got to worry about what you're able to control and all that is is playing hockey."

Stats Pack

2-9-0 – Leafs record in the past 11 games.

17:36 – Ice-time for Phil Kessel on Tuesday, his lowest since Jan. 23.

16 – Consecutive games without a point for David Clarkson, a drought snapped Tuesday with his fifth goal of the season.

7-22-2 – Leafs record this season when Phil Kessel does not record a point.
 
.907 – Save percentage for Jonathan Bernier in March.

17 – Games without a goal for Jay McClement, who snapped that drought Tuesday with his fourth of the season.

15:10 – Minutes for Paul Ranger, who returned to the lineup as the seventh defender against Calgary.

Special Teams Capsule

PP: 0-1
Season: 20.3% (7th)

PK: 2-2
Season: 78.6% (28th)

Quote of the Night

"I don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves because we didn't paint a Mona Lisa here tonight."

- Randy Carlyle, following a 3-2 win over the Flames.

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The Leafs host the Bruins at the ACC on Thursday night.

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