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Mirtle: Leafs playoff hopes all but toast after lacklustre loss to Jets

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer (34) looks on during stoppage in play against the Winnipeg Jets during first period NHL action in Toronto on Saturday, April 5, 2014.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

They were outclassed.

They were embarrassed.

And they're now all but guaranteed to miss the playoffs.

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Playing in yet another do-or-die game against an opponent out of the running for anything but a decent draft pick, the Toronto Maple Leafs were hammered 4-2 by the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, receiving another death blow to their slim postseason hopes.

It was so ugly, few fans – including Mayor Rob Ford – stuck around until the end to boo the Leafs on their way off the rink.

Given how they played, this was a feeble way for Toronto to end its home schedule and any realistic shot of continuing playing beyond next weekend. The Jets were without one of their top forwards in Evander Kane (a healthy scratch) and came in six points back of Toronto after having their playoff hopes crushed earlier in the week.

Even so, Winnipeg piled up 41 shots on beleaguered netminder James Reimer and capitalized several times on miscues from Toronto's top players in the defensive zone.

By the end, the Leafs had been outshot 39-15 at even strength and had possession of the puck just 28 per cent of the time.

Because this was their last home game of the year, it very well could be the last appearance behind the Air Canada Centre bench for coach Randy Carlyle and his staff, who should shoulder a large portion of the blame for just how unprepared and out of sorts Toronto has looked all season, especially in their own zone.

"I wish I had the answer," Carlyle said, giving a very uncomforting answer when asked about his team's lack of desperation in such a desperate situation. "We couldn't make two passes."

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Others, like Reimer, will surely be traded in what must be a soul searching off-season for GM Dave Nonis and new MLSE president Tim Leiweke.

What they've put together this season – on the roster, in their systems and in the excuses from the front office – clearly isn't good enough, regardless of how long they strung out the ultimately futile playoff chase.

On pace for 87 points in a league where 92 is the average, the Leafs look closer to a bottom feeder on way too many nights, one saved by good goaltending and Phil Kessel's scoring prowess from being truly awful.

They rode high shooting and save percentages for the first 60 games, but both have come crashing down since the Olympic break, a 6-11-2 stretch that included a season-killing eight-game regulation losing streak.

"I couldn't tell you why it got away from us but you could see we got outworked," Leafs centre Dave Bolland said quietly after Saturday's loss. "You see what happens tonight."

"They outplayed us," Kessel added. "They were fast… I don't know [why the effort wasn't better]. You can answer that."

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Saturday's game started out respectably enough for Toronto. The Leafs picked up an early lead when Kessel belted in his 37th of the season off a nice feed from linemate Tyler Bozak on an odd-man rush 2:45 into the game.

Toronto then benefited from a brutal Ondrej Pavelec brain cramp on Nazem Kadri's 20th of the season that made it 2-1.

But the Leafs top line was also on the ice for two Jets goals against in the first frame, as they tried to fly the zone too early, leading to tallies from Bryan Little and Jacob Trouba – with three seconds left in the period – to tie things at 2-2 after 20 minutes.

That led into a disastrous middle frame, as the Leafs were hemmed in their own zone throughout, generating just one even strength shot on goal and getting outshot 14-7 overall.

With all that zone time, the Jets eventually drew a key penalty and defenceman Toby Enstrom wired the 3-2 goal through a screen from the point.

It was 20 minutes that were highly symbolic of how Toronto's season has gone, with their play without the puck so poor it has negated good goaltending and timely scoring to the point they didn't really have a chance.

With the game still up for grabs, Jets centre Olli Jokinen added an insurance goal midway through the third period, and the Leafs never really put up much of a fight after that.

"We seem to find ways to always wonder what the heck is going on," Carlyle said of his staff's frustration. "Why? What's going on there? Why are we reacting in that manner?

"That's the frustrating part for us. When we are able to execute and our work ethic that is strong we're a hockey club that can give teams difficulty. But our consistency level goes from game to game and sometimes period to period."

There had been some faint hope for the Leafs after they ended an eight-game losing streak earlier in the week with back-to-back wins over Calgary and Boston, but the reality was the margin of error was always exceptionally slim.

Toronto came into Saturday's game with just a 12 per cent chance of making the postseason, but after the loss to the Jets and Washington and New Jersey both won on the out of town scoreboard, they're looking at roughly 2.6 per cent with three road games to play.

Even if they run the table, the Leafs can only get to 90 points, and Columbus needs to only go 2-2-1 to close the year ahead of them.

It is, in other words, essentially over.

And, after so many efforts like this through 79 games, deservedly so.

"You never know," Kessel said. "We still have three games left. We're going to play hard. Whatever happens, happens here."

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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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