With the regular season winding down and their playoffs chances having all but evaporated, the Leafs faced off in one of their final games of the season against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday evening. For those who were still holding out hope that the Leafs could gain ground on a wild card spot, tonight was truly an absolute must-win for the Leafs.
The first period has not been friendly to the Leafs throughout many of their recent games, but they seemed to have a strong start and weren’t struggling to keep pace with the Lightning. Although Tampa had many scoring chances, Reimer stood tall in his net and seemed to be playing with a sense of confidence that has been missing in his play as of late. The Leafs also had their share of scoring chances as the Lightning found themselves in penalty trouble, but the Leafs couldn’t get on the board with the man-advantage. A scary moment occurred midway through the first when Ben Bishop fell awkwardly to the ice favouring his shoulder after making a save. It was later announced that he wouldn’t return for the rest of the game.
As the second period got underway, the Leafs continued their strong play and both teams traded scoring opportunities. Phil Kessel almost got the Leafs first goal of the game but was stopped by Anders Lindback who came in to replace Bishop. Just passed the midway point of the period, Ondrej Palat gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead. Six minutes later, Palat scored his second goal of the game. The Leafs would head into the third period down 2-0.
As the third period between the Leafs and Lightning began, the Columbus Blue Jackets defeated the Phoenix Coyotes 4-3 in overtime, which would mathematically eliminate the Leafs from playoff contention if the Leafs lost to the Lightning. The final period became even more important as the Leafs knew they had to find a way to not only tie the game but also get two points. The Leafs fired many shots at Lindback but they couldn’t find a way to solve him. With less than two minutes left in the game, Reimer was pulled for the extra attacker but Victor Hedman scored an empty-netter to make it 3-0 Lightning, officially dashing their playoff hopes.
The Leafs recent collapse is a bitter pill to swallow for their fans who were hoping they could have another spot in the post-season after last years devastating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins, which was their first playoff berth in nine years. The Leafs had a strong start in October and were at one point 6-1 and 1st overall. Just four weeks ago, they were third in the East.
A clearly dejected Randy Carlyle spoke to the media after the game and expressed his disappointment in this team. “When we came out of the California trip, we thought we’d proven to ourselves that we could compete with some of the good teams and we wanted to take that next step but it went in the other direction for us.”
The Leafs will play their final two games of the season against the Florida Panthers and the Ottawa Senators.
Guest writer Pamela Yap is a Sheridan College post-grad in Journalism New Media and wrote for CBC during the 2012 London Olympics.