TORONTO – This was the Toronto Maple Leafs in a nutshell.
With everything on the line, with any hope of the postseason hanging on by a rapidly dwindling thread did they deliver the baffling Mr. Hyde performance – a 4-2 loss to the recently eliminated Jets – that will soon seal another season of disappointment and collapse.
One team on this night – the final home game of the regular season in Toronto – looked like it was fighting to get into the playoffs and it wasn't the Leafs. They were instead the lacklustre group that was pushed around, outworked, bodied off pucks, standing still, lost defensively, and lacking the urgency or emotion expected of a team fighting to stay alive for one more day.
It was perhaps the predictable performance of an unpredictable and often bewildering hockey club, one who will (very) soon miss the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons and thus complete another shattering late season unraveling.
"We seem to find ways to always wonder 'what the heck is going on'," said a befuddled Randy Carlyle afterward. "That's the frustrating part for us is that when we are able to execute and our work ethic is strong we're a hockey club that can give teams difficulty and play to a high level, but our consistency level, it goes from game to game and sometimes period to period."
The unraveling on this night began in earnest with less than four seconds left in the first frame.
It was then, with the Leafs up 2-1, that Jacob Trouba knotted the score, ending a shift which included the usual assortment of failed execution and intensity. James van Riemsdyk, who failed initially to chip the puck out along the sideboards, was beaten to a rebound by the Jets blossoming young defender.
Noticeably hungrier and more determined, Winnipeg wore out the home side for extended and repeated shifts in the two periods that followed. Toronto went seven minutes and 24 seconds at one point without even a shot on goal. Carlyle described his team as "flat", missing energy, chasing the game constantly.
"They won more one-on-one battles than we did that's for sure," he said, a damning fact in a game of such importance.
And while the head coach will surely and deservedly absorb his share of blame for a failed season, the stunning lack of fight in Game 79 cannot be thrust on his shoulders.
Dave Bolland, known for a winning pedigree, wouldn't sugarcoat what was plainly apparent, that a team fighting for its playoff life was simply outworked. "When they were getting that puck in deep they were hungry," he said dejectedly of the Jets attack.
Tobias Enstrom would reward those efforts, capping a power-play with the eventual game-winner. It was the deserved fate of the home team on this night, a group that was booed off the ice by an increasingly sour fan-base.
"I think they outplayed us," said Phil Kessel. "We need to play better."
He and the Leafs have very likely run out of time, however, their chances of returning to the postseason for a second straight spring all but torpedoed with the loss.
Toronto has just three games left and would somehow have to jump over the Devils and Blue Jackets (and maybe even the Capitals) for the final wild card position in the East, highly unlikely given that both have games in hand and the requisite tiebreakers. Any momentum seemingly built up in back-to-back wins over Calgary and Boston slipped away in a hurry.
"I know in our heads we wanted it," said a down-looking James Reimer, "[but] maybe it didn't show out there."
Earlier in the day, Carlyle and his players spoke of controlling what they could control and then letting the chips fall where they may. "We don't want to get caught up too much in what other teams are doing," he said. "We want to make sure that our focus is totally 110 per cent on what we're doing and what we have to do to give ourselves a chance."
But there was none of that here to see, just more of the bizarre same from a flawed and highly unpredictable hockey team.
It seemed a plainly evident notion, but Dion Phaneuf disagreed with the assertion.
"I don't think we were outworked," he said, contradicting what seemed the obvious consensus, even for those in the Toronto dressing room. "We were working hard, but sometimes we made some mistakes that were costly mistakes."
Tyler Bozak conceded that the Leafs were outworked in certain segments of the game, including a one-sided second frame which saw his team outshot 14-7. "We should've been [outworking them] the whole game seeing as the situation we're in," Bozak said. "They were playing with nothing to lose and at ease and not afraid to make mistakes or anything like that."
Winnipeg managed 41 shots for the game, nearly doubling the output of the Leafs (25).
2. Individuals vs. Team
It was an extra pass by Kessel that landed in the hands of the opponent and eventually became the Jets first goal – one that Bryan Little scored. Such mistakes of added finesse have come to define some of the Leafs struggle. "It's one of those where the individual thinks that maybe he's going to make the difference and we play as individuals, not as a team," Carlyle said, though not referring specifically to the goal.
The Leafs head coach, whose job security hangs delicately in the balance, has always preferred a meat and potatoes brand of hockey, but has more often been treated (frustrated?) to sometimes unnecessary displays of skill. He gushed over the simplicity some of the league's top teams seem to display.
"They keep it very simple," he said. "They don't complicate the game. And at times we seem to want to complicate it."
3. Home Ice
The Leafs concluded their home schedule with 24 wins, the most of any Toronto team since the 2005-06 season (26). Improvement at the ACC was a priority of Carlyle and the coaching staff prior to the season. "In order for you to be a team that's going to qualify for the playoffs and build an organization your home rink has to be one place that's difficult for opposition to come in and steal points," Carlyle said. "Our mandate is to make it as difficult as possible."
Maybe the starkest contrast between home and away for the Leafs all year has been their offence, considerably more pronounced in Toronto. They averaged more than three goals per game at home versus 2.53 on the road with three games still to play. A big part of that has been the league's no. 1 ranked home power-play, which finished 1-4 against the Jets on Saturday.
Setting up Kessel for the game's first goal, Bozak matched career-highs with his 29th assist and 47th point of the season. He met those marks in 18 fewer games than when he initially established them in the 2011-12 season.
The 26-year-old Kessel meanwhile matched a career-high himself, scoring his 37th goal of the year while also hitting the 80-point plateau for the second time in his career. He sits just off the 82 points totaled in the 11-12 campaign.
Having already set career-highs in all three main offensive categories (goals, assists, points), Nazem Kadri hit 20 goals for the first time in his career, scoring the Leafs second goal against the Jets.
5. Out of Town Scoreboard
On the edge of his seat Friday night watching the Blue Jackets play the Blackhawks, Kadri cheered loudly when Ben Smith scored with four seconds left in regulation to lift Chicago to a 4-3 win. Columbus's last-second defeat kept them just a single point in front of Toronto for the final wild card spot in the East – they hold the tiebreaker.
"We're following it pretty closely, at least I am," said Kadri of the out-of-town scoreboard before Saturday's game. "That was a pretty spectacular finish. I did fist-pump one or two times."
The Leafs could not take advantage, however, of the door which cracked open ever so slightly in the Columbus loss. The Blue Jackets, with 85 points and six games to play, occupy the final wild card spot in the East.
24-16-1 – Leafs record at the ACC this season.
20 – Goals for Nazem Kadri this season, the first time he's hit that mark in the NHL.
23 – Consecutive games without a power-play point for James van Riemsdyk.
0 – Victories in a start for James Reimer since Jan. 21.
10-4-2 – Leafs record vs. Canadian teams this season.
47 – Points this season for Tyler Bozak, matching a career-high.
7:24 – Time between shots for the Leafs in the second period.
37 – Goals this season for Phil Kessel, matching a career-high.
600 - Games played in the career of Joffrey Lupul. Lupul exited Saturday's game after the second period, re-aggravating a lower-body injury.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 20.6% (5th)
Season: 78.5% (28th)
Quote of the Night
"I know in our heads we wanted it, maybe it didn't show out there."
-James Reimer, following the loss to Winnipeg.
The Leafs conclude the regular season with a three-game road trip, beginning Tuesday night in Tampa.