TORONTO (CP) – It was nothing new to see these Toronto Maple Leafs beaten. A 4-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings was their eighth straight in regulation.
But Saturday night in the home locker room at Air Canada Centre, the Leafs looked defeated for the first time during this losing streak or this once-hopeful season that has quickly gone off the rails.
"I can't describe it right now,'' winger Joffrey Lupul said. "This was as close to a do-or-die as you can get. But obviously we're not going to throw out hope until it's mathematically set in stone. But we pretty much had to have this game.''
Seven losses piled up and yet the Leafs still sounded like a team that had hope. Giving up huge leads in the standings to the Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals to fall into a four-way tie at 80 points was one thing.
Squandering the most important game of this stretch so far to a fellow Eastern Conference wild-card competitor felt like the breaking point.
"This loss is the most disappointing out of the eight. There's no hiding that,'' captain Dion Phaneuf said. "We come tonight against a team that was battling for that same spot and they win this hockey game. This is the toughest loss for sure.''
Detroit (34-26-14) got a hat trick from Darren Helm and another from the NHL's hottest goal-scorer, Gustav Nyquist, to reach 82 points.
"It was the first hat trick I ever had, which is pretty special,'' Helm said. "Big game to win, too. I was happy to win the game, first off, but the hat trick is a nice thing to take home.''
The Red Wings weren't the only ones in the race to win Saturday night, as the Blue Jackets beat the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime to take over the top wild-card spot in the East at 82 points. Columbus leads Detroit because they have more regulation and overtime wins (33 to 29).
With just six games remaining – two less than each of the three teams they're competing with for two spots – the Leafs are fourth among those teams and know the difficult task in front of them.
"We've got to win the rest of our games and get help now, I think,'' said Lupul, who scored the Leafs' second goal of the night late in the second period to give some life that evaporated in the third. "All we can control right now is winning the rest of our games, and we're going to have to have every one, probably.''
Phaneuf didn't want to consider that daunting task. The defenceman whose miscues cost the Leafs in previous defeats didn't want to think too far ahead but also called this a "very trying'' time for a group that was in second place in the Atlantic Division as recently as Mar. 16.
This was the first time in franchise history that Toronto (36-32-8) went eight straight games without a point since 1996 and the first time it lost eight consecutive in regulation since 1985.
"It's not like we're playing bad hockey, it's just one of those things where every mistake that we do make ends up (in our net),'' said defenceman Cody Franson, who opened the scoring 10:57 into the first period. "It's the end of the season, everybody's clamping down and your little mistakes end up costing you. Plain and simple.''
Mistakes like a turnover by Phil Kessel on the power play early in the second that led to Helm's first, a short-handed goal. Or like the puck taking a bad hop off Franson and right to Helm for his third.
"It just isn't meant to be for us right now, and this is the tough ones,'' coach Randy Carlyle said.
Asked what he figured the difference was in the loss, his third straight since returning from a groin injury, goaltender Jonathan Bernier (24 saves on 28 shots) said: "Odd-man rushes.''
"We gave up odd-man situations repeatedly for whatever reason,'' he said. "It's tough to say from the bench, that's something you notice when you watch the game again. But the try is there, just we didn't get the job done and we have to pay for that now.''
The Leafs have been paying since they last won a game, Mar. 13 at the Los Angeles Kings. Most importantly they haven't been picking up valuable points with the games whittling down to the end of the regular season.
On the other hand, Detroit has picked up 11 points and gone on an impressive run without star forward Pavel Datsyuk and captain Henrik Zetterberg. The injuries have piled up, but the Red Wings have gotten 21 goals in 26 games from Nyquist and continued solid performances from goalie Jimmy Howard (25 saves) to remain in the playoff race.
"We've been devastated this year, no question about it, but we found all these kids and we're better for it going ahead, so that's a positive thing,'' coach Mike Babcock said. "We've had a lot of fun doing it. We've been in the grinder since day one, there's no question about it, but we've had a lot of fun doing it and we've got a big game against Tampa tomorrow.''
Every game down the stretch is big for the Leafs now. They return to Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night to face the Calgary Flames before hosting the Atlantic Division-champion Boston Bruins on Thursday and the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday.
They finish the season with three on the road: at the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators. But unless they manage to string together a home winning streak, those games will be too late.
The task in front of them is to prevent doing even once more what they've done eight consecutive times. As the Leafs seemed to realize Saturday night, they can no longer afford to lose.
"We've won six in a row in the season,'' Bernier said. "Obviously it's hard to snap the long losing streak like that, but we've got to find a way. If not, then we'll be home very soon.''
NOTES: Winger Phil Kessel took a pass from James van Riemsdyk off his right foot in the first period and laboured to the bench in pain. Kessel was seen limping after the game, but Carlyle did not have any information on his condition. ... Bernier started on back-to-back days for the first time this season and just the second time in his NHL career. The only previous time was March 5, 2013 with the Los Angeles Kings, when Bernier was pulled after giving up three goals on eight shots. ... Defenceman Paul Ranger and enforcer Colton Orr were scratched for the Leafs, who recalled forward Jerry D'Amigo earlier in the day from the AHL's Toronto Marlies. ... The Red Wings were playing their 14th straight game without Datsyuk (knee) and 16th straight without Zetterberg (back). They've played 35 total without Datsyuk and 29 without Zetterberg. ... The game was broadcast live on CCTV in China.
1 - 0 TOR
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 DET
3 - 1 DET