TORONTO (CP) - One team on the ice had nothing to lose and nothing to play for. The other team had its playoff hopes on the line and was trying to save its season.
By the time the lights went out at Air Canada Centre and on the Toronto Maple Leafs' season following a 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, it was difficult to tell which was which. The Leafs are all but done and would now need a miracle to make the playoffs.
Losing the game was one thing, built on ill-timed mistakes and mental lapses. But why the lacklustre Leafs couldn't match the intensity of a team outside the playoff race left goaltender James Reimer and others grasping for answers.
"I don't know if I can really give you an explanation for that, for how it appeared,'' said Reimer, who gave up four goals on 41 shots in losing his sixth straight start. "I know in our heads we wanted it, but maybe it didn't show it there.''
When it didn't show, fans booed the Leafs off the ice in their final home game of the season. A few threw beer cups.
Players could at least understand the frustration after this defeat left them stuck on 84 points, one back in the Eastern Conference wild-card race of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have five games to play to the Leafs' three. By winning Saturday night, the New Jersey Devils also reached 84 points and passed Toronto (38-33-8) because they have four more games left to play.
Phil Kessel, who scored his 37th goal of the season 2:45 into the first period to match a career high, didn't want to concede anything about realizing the playoff dream was essentially gone.
"You never know,'' Kessel said. "We still have three games left and we're going to play hard. You know, whatever happens, happens here.''
The Leafs finish their season with three games on the road: Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Lightning, Thursday at the Florida Panthers and Saturday at the Ottawa Senators. But the Jets (35-34-10), who were officially eliminated Thursday with a loss to Pittsburgh, managed to beat Toronto with goals by Bryan Little, Jacob Trouba, Tobias Enstrom and Olli Jokinen.
"I thought it was a great effort start to finish,'' Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "Offensively we were able to sustain pressure throughout the whole game. That's just through hard work, being in the right place. We can be proud of the effort we put forth tonight.''
The Jets won despite winger Evander Kane being a healthy scratch. Paul Maurice offered no explanation other to call it a "coach's decision.''
When asked if he enjoyed playing spoiler against the team that fired him in 2008 after two seasons without a playoff appearance, Maurice offered up a wry smile and the politically correct answer.
"No,'' Maurice said. "You know what, it's a lousy job. You don't ever want to play spoiler. We've talked a lot about being where you are and that's where we were tonight and we gave our best effort.''
A "solid effort'' was something that Leafs centre Tyler Bozak noted was lacking at times Saturday night. At times, he thought the Jets were the harder-working team but didn't understand why.
"We should've been (the harder working team) the whole game seeing the situation we were in,'' Bozak said.
The situation was already bleak, following a streak of eight straight regulation losses in March. The Leafs figured to need to run the table to give them a realistic shot at the playoffs.
Despite Kessel's goal, and then Nazem Kadri's on the power play at 13:45 of the first when Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec mishandled the puck behind the net, Toronto couldn't do much after giving up a goal to Trouba with 3.2 seconds left in the first period. Coach Randy Carlyle couldn't figure out what went wrong in the game's final 40 minutes.
"We just seemed like we were a flat hockey club from that point,'' Carlyle said. "We chased the game. And we didn't seem to have any energy as a group. That's the way I saw it. It seemed like we were chasing the game, the pace of the game. They won more one-on-one battles than we did, that's for sure.''
Centre Dave Bolland, who played just nine minutes 15 seconds on a sore ankle that Carlyle said got rolled on occasionally, said bluntly that the Leafs "got outworked.'' Captain Dion Phaneuf didn't want to go that far, pointing instead to "costly mistakes'' as the reason for the loss.
No matter the explanation, the Leafs showed yet another example of maddening inconsistency in game 79 of a season that started with such promise and took such an inexplicable turn toward disaster last month.
"We seem to find ways to always wonder, 'What the heck is going on? Why? What's going on there? Why are we reacting in that manner?''' Carlyle said. "That's the frustrating part for us is that when we are able to execute and our work ethic is strong, that we're a hockey club that can give teams difficulty and play to a high level.
"But our consistency level, it goes from game-to-game and sometimes period to period.''
Finding a solution to that problem will now more than likely have to wait until next season. To make the playoffs, the Leafs would undoubtedly need to sweep their final three games and hope for the Blue Jackets and Devils to fall apart.
They can be eliminated as early as Tuesday.
Still, Carlyle and his players have no choice but to get ready to go on the road to face the Lightning.
"We've got to get ourselves ready,'' he said. "We've got to re-energize our group because we were a flat group tonight. We were a flat hockey club and we just didn't seem to have any jump that was required.''
NOTES - Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul started the game despite being bothered by what the team is calling a lower-body injury. He left in the third when he aggravated it, according to Carlyle. Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien left the game in the second period with an upper-body injury and did not return. Legendary Leafs goaltender Johnny Bower was interviewed on the video board and said that a woman who was proposed to minutes earlier wearing his No. 1 jersey was actually his granddaughter. Bower then got a standing ovation following a video tribute.
James van Riemsdyk
1 - 0 TOR
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 TOR