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Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Darryl Boyce (R) and Detroit Red Wings left wing Justin Abdelkader fight each other during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Detroit, Michigan March 26, 2011. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

REBECCA COOK

Playoff dreams often go to Detroit to die.

The Toronto Maple Leafs' likely did just that this past weekend, as after landing in Motown on Friday afternoon only three points from the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and optimistic they could claw closer, Toronto is an overwhelming seven points back with six games to play.

Which means a game this week, at home, against the Buffalo Sabres - the team they're chasing - means far less than it could have.

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After starting the season 13-19-4, the Leafs were always a long shot to make the postseason, even after reeling off a 15-6-5 stretch heading into Saturday's 4-2 loss to the Red Wings.

A huge part of the problem is that the hole was just too deep, especially for the second youngest team in the league and with a schedule that hit its most difficult stretch starting March 1.

Another issue is just how hot the Sabres have been, as their own impressive second-half revival continued with two more wins this weekend as part of an 11-3-3 run.

And that's done a lot of the damage.

On the morning of March 1, Buffalo was only two points ahead of Toronto, sitting ninth in the conference and looking vulnerable.

Four weeks later, the Sabres appear headed as high as sixth in the conference and can put a final nail in the Leafs' coffin with a win at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday.

"We're definitely not getting any breaks from the other teams in the league," Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said. "Teams don't lose down the stretch, I guess. We're finding that out."

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"What are you going to do?" coach Ron Wilson added. "There's still plenty of time."

Even if Toronto now runs the table, however, the picture is pretty grim.

Sports probability website sportsclubstats.com gives the Leafs only a 0.42-per-cent chance of making the playoffs, with that figure rising to 29 per cent should they win their final six games in regulation.

Even then, they don't control their destiny, as Toronto now maxes out at 90 points, meaning that if the Sabres gain six or more points in their last seven games, they're home free.

The sixth- and seventh-place Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers need only four points in six games to hit 91, meaning they're out of reach barring a monumental collapse.

The most likely outcome in the standings now is for the Leafs to finish with between 83 and 86 points, good enough for 10th in the East and 20th in the NHL.

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That's a vast improvement over last season, when 74 points put Toronto 15th in the conference and 29th overall, and not giving up another lottery pick to the Boston Bruins as a result of the Phil Kessel deal measures as a small victory.

Given just how close they'll come, however, it's hard not to look back to the Leafs' 31-game implosion from Games 6 to 36, when they went 9-19-3 and plummeted in the standings.

At that point, rookie netminder James Reimer arrived, picking up his first NHL start in Game 37 and posting a terrific .923 save percentage while starting 29 of the next 40 games.

Toronto has been one of the league's better teams ever since, playing at a more than 98-point pace since Jan. 1 - a span that includes a 4-5-2 record for goalies Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Jonas Gustavsson - and a 106-point pace since Feb. 1.

Not that it matters much now.

But had Reimer been given the ball a little earlier and given this team the above-average goaltending it needs to win games, it might have been a different story.

Three, maybe four, more wins, after all, is likely all it would have taken to make it, and those are points that were frittered away in November and December.

The dream may have died this weekend in Detroit, where the local team will be playing for its fifth Stanley Cup in 14 seasons, but it was on life support long before the Leafs ever got there.

And that's become an all-too-familiar story for a team about to begin its off-season early for the sixth year in a row.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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