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Maple Leafs fall to Lightning amid race for final playoff spot

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews tries to re-direct a shot as he goes to the next against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Air Canada Centre, on April 6, 2017.

Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports

With apologies to The Who, the kids were not all right for the second game in succession, and now the NHL playoffs look a little uncertain.

On a night when the Ottawa Senators clinched a playoff spot with a 2-1 shootout win over the Boston Bruins, and the New York Islanders stayed alive by beating the Carolina Hurricanes, the Leafs were thoroughly outplayed in a 4-1 loss by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Leafs' second loss in a row by that score. This also kept the Lightning alive in the chase for the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot, which seems to be what the Leafs will have to settle for.

The Leafs now have the big challenge of taking at least two points in their season-ending back-to-back set this weekend against two formidable opponents, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. They sit in the second wild-card spot with 93 points, three ahead of both the Lightning and the Islanders. The Leafs do have a chance to make the post-season even if they don't get two points in their weekend set but only if the Lightning and Islanders fade in their last two games.

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A team that seemingly was too young and too oblivious of what is at stake to be scared was finally looking nervous and frustrated by the end of Thursday's game. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock admitted that might have been the case.

"I thought it was [Thursday night]," he said. "I didn't think it was before. That's why you go through these opportunities, so this will be a good lesson for us."

What the Leafs have to do now, Babcock said, is forget about all the outside pressure, of a city that is sky-high at the prospect of seeing playoff hockey, of how good the Penguins are and remember how to play the game that got them this far on Saturday night.

"We'll fix this, look at this totally and we'll get ourselves right," Babcock said. "It doesn't matter what Pittsburgh does, we have to get ourselves right to play and play like we normally do and don't let the excitement of the moment or the energy of the moment get in the way of who we are.

"Forget about that, just do what you do, Play d-zone like you do, win faceoffs like you do, get through the neutral zone like you do, fore-check like you do. Just focus on doing your job and good things happen to you."

One thing certain about the Maple Leafs this season is they never made it easy on themselves. Earlier this season, it was all about blown third-period leads and one-goal losses. And blowouts of opposing teams were rare as well.

Everything was in place for the Leafs to take charge right from the start. The Lightning were missing centres Steven Stamkos, who is still not ready to return from a knee injury sustained last November, and Tyler Johnson, who was ruled out at game time. Also out with injuries were forward Ryan Callahan, who had surgery on his hip in January, and defenceman Jason Garrison.

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The Lightning may have iced a team made up of minor-league call-ups and inexperienced NHLers but they were a determined group. After the Leafs opened the game with a decent enough couple of minutes, the Lightning took over and earned a 2-1 lead through the first 40 minutes as the Leafs only sporadically asserted themselves.

Afterwards, there was a sense in the Leafs' dressing room that the players realized what an opportunity they missed. A win against a depleted lineup would have assured the Leafs a playoff spot.

"We knew what we had to do," defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "But we didn't do our job. They did a good job, they answered  the bell and took the wind out of our sails.

"We have to work in practice [Friday]. We have to focus on what we need to do against Pittsburgh."

Not even seeing their prize rookie, centre Auston Matthews, take a knee-hit from Lightning defenceman Jake Dotchkin late in the first period, could get the Leafs fired up. Dotchkin, who was already on the Leafs' radar for a hit in an American Hockey League game in January that left another Leaf rookie, Kasperi Kapanen, out for a month with a leg injury, drove his knee into Matthews' left thigh on a rush.

Matthews went down hard and was in obvious pain but eventually skated to the bench. No penalty was called, although Matthews was able to return for his next shift and appeared back up to speed on a good rush and scoring chance. The Leaf fans were enraged, especially Matthews' parents, who were in the stands. His mom was caught by the television cameras letting fly with a nasty word.

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Matthews drew a measure of revenge when he caught Lightning defenceman Andrej Sustr in a corner with a shoulder hit.

Dotchkin came to the attention of most NHL fans last week when he was the victim of a dirty play. Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand earned a two-game suspension, considered a light punishment by many around the NHL, when he speared Dobkin in the groin.

The Leafs power play had enough chances to get something going but went 0-for-four. In the meantime, the Bolts made good on their only power-play chance to open the scoring.

Rookie centre Brayden Point scored the first of his two goals at 7:34 of the second period with Leaf defenceman Roman Polak off for interference. The Leafs came back quickly at 9:42 when Nazem Kadri deflected a shot by defenceman Matt Hunwick for his 32nd goal of the season but it was a short-lived rally. The Lightning regained the lead two minutes later when Nikita Kucherov put a tremendous shot past goaltender Frederik Anderson for his 39th goal of the season.

Another rallying point for the Leafs, a great glove save on Jonathan Drouin by Andersen late in the second period, also faded. They came out flat again for the third period and the Lightning took a 3-1 lead two minutes in on a goal by Michael Bournival, another part-time NHLer. Hedman assisted on that one, too, for his third of the game. Point scored his second goal of the game late in the third to slam the door shut on the Leafs.

"We played hard but we didn't come up to the level we [can]," said Leafs winger Leo Komarov. "[The Lightning] did their job and we didn't do what we needed to do."

There was some speculation Stamkos would make his return to action Thursday night after missing most of the season with a knee injury. But he ruled himself out after the morning skate. It now looks like he won't play at all as the regular season winds down.

"It's probably not looking that good," Stamkos said. "It's been frustrating, obviously, whenever you have to deal with a major injury. I've been unfortunate the last couple years having dealt with a few too many."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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