This one stung big time. The players wouldn't say it, but Tuesday night's 6-2 defeat to the visiting Boston Bruins very much felt like the last game of the year. At least the last game that mattered.
``That's a tough one,'' Stajan said while exhaling. ``You get behind that team and they just clog up the neutral zone and you find yourself doing things you shouldn't be doing like turning pucks over.
Shawn Thornton, Marco Sturm and rookie David Krejci each had a goal and an assist and the Bruins put a dagger in Toronto's playoff bubble, handing the Maple Leafs a defeat at a time when they couldn't really afford any more.
Jeremy Reich, Phil Kessel and Glen Murray also scored for the Bruins, who maintained their hold on the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and improved to 86 points. That's six ahead of the Leafs with five games left to play for Toronto. The best the Leafs can get to now is 90 points _ which almost surely won't cut it.
``I don't feel that at all,'' protested Leafs winger Alexei Ponikarovsky when asked if his team's season was cooked. ``We have another five games and we'll keep battling for it.''
Head coach Paul Maurice showed how desperate things were, pulling goalie Vesa Toskala with 3:18 to play in the third period and his team down three goals.
Ponikarovsky and Jason Blake scored for the Leafs, who knew they had to sweep the home-and-home series with the Bruins this week and then still hope for some help. But instead they'll head to Boston for Thursday's game having already failed.
``I think we're 1-4 this month at home and 6-0 on the road,`` said Maurice, who was accurate on that. ''That's a difficult thing to deal with.''
The Washington Capitals will be cheering for the Leafs on Thursday. The Caps kept pace with the Bruins, beating Carolina in a shootout Tuesday night to stay two points behind Boston. The Bruins were slipping coming into Tuesday night, winning only two of their last 10 (2-4-4), and were just as desperate as Toronto to grab the two points.
``There was a lot at stake,'' agreed Bruins head coach Claude Julien. ``My message to the guys was that we needed to enjoy this experience. `If you guys give everything you've got, we'll deal with the consequences later. But lay it all on the line tonight.'''
His players responded with one of their best efforts in nearly a month. And that's despite playing short-handed for most of the game after losing 22-goal scorer Chuck Kobasew to a leg injury early in the first period.
``I can't say enough about the guys tonight _ especially after losing Kobasew early like that,'' said Julien. ``Guys really stepped up.''
The end result was thoroughly disappointing for a crowd of 19,562 at Air Canada Centre that had hoped to see their team's miracle run continue. The Leafs had gone 12-4-1 in their last 17 games entering Tuesday.
``It's disappointing but we have to bounce back,'' said Stajan. ``There's still hope. We have to beat these guys Thursday and hope the hockey gods can help us.''
Both clubs were missing their leading scorers. Bruins playmaker Marc Savard was out with a back injury he picked up after being cross-checked by Montreal's Steve Begin last Saturday night. Leafs captain Mats Sundin missed his fifth straight game with a groin injury.
The Leafs had gone 3-1 without their star centre and fans had jumped back on the bandwagon in recent days. There was a buzz in the building Tuesday night not felt in a long time and a ``Go Leafs Go!'' chant breaking out just minutes into the game.
But the crowd was quickly quieted when Matt Lashoff's point shot deflected off Murray and through Toskala's five-hole just 3:57 into the game on a Bruins power play. The was the only goal in a tentative opening period by both sides.
Krejci doubled his team's lead 1:12 into the second period, backhanding a rebound past Toskala off a Sturm blast. Krejci then returned the favour at 8:20, spotting Sturm at the side of the net with a perfect cross-ice pass on a power play and the German didn't miss the open net. It was 3-0 Bruins and one could hear a pin drop at the Air Canada Centre.
Leafs veteran Bryan McCabe didn't do his team any favours, blasting the puck over the glass in disgust after the third Boston goal, earning him a delay of game penalty. Not a smart penalty by a veteran player.
The crowd came to life again when Pavel Kubina bounced a pass off Blake and past Thomas with 4:30 left in the middle period, igniting another raucous rendition of ``Go Leafs Go.''
But there would be no comeback on this night. Thornton made it 4-1 just 3:05 into the third period, deking around Toskala like he was Bobby Orr. Game over.
Ponikarovsky, on a Leafs power play, slid home a shot from the slot with 5:16 left to make it 4-2. Kessel restored the three-goal lead on a one-timer with 3:44 remaining. Reich found the empty net to complete the scoring at 19:43.
Notes: Forward Boyd Devereaux made his return to the Leafs lineup after missing 15 games with a knee injury. The Leafs reassigned forward Alex Foster to the AHL Marlies ... Aside from Savard, the Bruins were also missing defencemen Andrew Ference (leg), Andrew Alberts (concussion) and Bobby Allen (back). Star centre Patrice Bergeron has been out since October a serious concussion ... The Leafs were also missing second leading scorer Nik Antropov (knee) as well as forward John Pohl (ankle) and defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo (hamstring) ... Three of Boston's four centres in Tuesday's lineup began the season in the AHL _ Vladimir Sobotka, Petteri Nokelainen and Krejci.