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Siegel: Leafs slim playoff hopes on the line vs. familiar foe

Jonas Siegel
4/2/2014 11:32:33 PM
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TORONTO – Randy Carlyle felt helpless.
 
He tried scores of video, tried highlight reels, tried countless meetings, tried whatever he could think up to alter the manner in which his seemingly unheard message was presented, anything to jolt a win from his team during the organization's longest losing streak (regulation) in more than 25 years.

But it didn't work for more than two weeks, challenged all season for that matter.

A narrow victory over Calgary Tuesday night wasn't exactly the Mona Lisa he imagined, but it did breathe the slightest gasp of life into the Maple Leafs sputtering playoff hopes.

With just five games to go and ground to gain on Detroit and Columbus – both with games in hand – those hopes remain faint, but could become a little more real with a victory over Boston on Thursday night – however unlikely given both team's recent performance.

The most crushing of foes for the Leafs in recent years – see: Game 7 – the Bruins have surged to the top of the NHL after a month of March that featured 15 wins in 17 games and just a single loss in regulation.

"When you play teams of that caliber, you have to be on the top of your game," Carlyle said, sounding almost envious of the template created by GM Peter Chiarielli and head coach Claude Julien. "There's a hockey club that's playing very well. If there's one thing that you can look to Boston is they don't really change. They do what they do and they do it as good as anybody in the league. They're a top team. They don't change their template."

His team hasn't approached anything close to that level of consistency all year, an unpredictable Jekyll and Hyde bunch from October on. Four entirely different stretches have effectively defined what's been a rollercoaster season in Toronto. The Leafs started with 10 wins in their first 14 games, spiraled with 21 losses in the next 32, rebounded with victories in 15 of 22 before spinning out with eight straight losses in regulation ahead of Tuesday's 3-2 win over the Flames.

Rarely did they function as imagined – major defensive deficiencies masked – winning games on the shoulders of a scorching top line and No. 1 goaltender, Jonathan Bernier, who thrived under a heavy workload.

Of late, those two prime elements have cooled (or been hurt) and the club has otherwise found all kinds of ways to lose, fatalistic errors and bouts of "freeze mode" as Carlyle described it, often defining close defeats.

"Even [Tuesday] night we stopped for awhile, but we got through it," he said of a game that saw Calgary rally late in the proceedings. "Those are the tough things and those are the things that make you shake your head and bang your head against the wall 'why are we doing that?'"

Carlyle has been shaking his head all season, unable to jive the current group with his imagined template.

As they do now, the Leafs looked all but dead in early January, only to reel off 11 wins in 14 games before the Olympic break, propped up mostly by Phil Kessel's dominance and Bernier's nightly theatrics.

Similar lightning in a bottle is now required – along with a dip from fellow wild card contenders – only now time is not on their side. And even five straight wins alone might not be enough to recover from another late season collapse.
 
Yet another biggest game of the year stands front and centre, this against a Boston hockey club that lost in regulation Wednesday for the first time in more than a month, a 2-1 third period lead erased by the pesky Red Wings. Detroit pulled four points in front of Toronto (with a game still in hand) with the victory, leaving Columbus as the most likely target.

"I think we all elevate our game against them," Jake Gardiner said of the Bruins, whom the Leafs defeated on Jan. 14. "It seems like we're always prepared to play them."

And they'll have to be. Their near-dead playoff fates are on the line.

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