Biggest game of the year one of Leafs’ worst

April 6, 2014, 12:20 AM

TORONTO – Five or six beers came hurtling out of the stands as soon as the final horn sounded. This was an expensive form of protest – a large draught will run you $15.25 at the Air Canada Centre – but it seemed like a fitting end to this particular Toronto Maple Leafs season.

Yes, there are still three games to be played, but those are nothing more than a formality at this point. It’s safe to start booking the tee times.

Phil Kessel was one of six Leafs skaters on the ice when Saturday’s game ended and saw a couple of the beers come crashing near his skates. The star winger, who is under contract with Toronto through 2021-22, glared into the stands and appeared to utter a few words. Asked later if he understood the frustration of fans, he replied: “You know what, I don’t want to comment on that right now.”

The truth of the matter is that Kessel has to be even more frustrated than even the most disgruntled customer. Here he is having a career season – he matched his previous high with his 37th goal on Saturday –yet for the fourth time in five years as a Leaf he’ll have to watch the playoffs on television.

What a disappointment.

The fact the Leafs couldn’t even muster anything resembling a desperate effort against the Winnipeg Jets in their biggest game of the season was yet another example of a faulty foundation. While Kessel is here for the long haul, many of his teammates shouldn’t expect the same treatment.

All of the familiar problems were on display during a disheartening 4-2 defeat to Winnipeg: Sloppy defensive play, missed coverages and head-scratching passes that either bounced or missed their target entirely.

Leafs coach Randy Carlyle has seen this type of performance way too many times from his group and provided an honest assessment when asked about the “enigma” that is the 2013-14 Maple Leafs.

“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?”’ said Carlyle. “The frustrating part for us is that when we are able to execute and our work ethic is strong, 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.”

Against the Jets, the Leafs were fortunate to have a 2-1 lead late in the first period. Ondrej Pavelec had gifted Nazem Kadri a goal with a misplay behind his net and Toronto should have had some momentum. Did we mention that this was a big game?

However, the air was sucked right out of the tires when Jacob Trouba fought off James van Riemsdyk and tied the game with just 3.2 seconds before the intermission. It was basically all Jets from there – they outshot Toronto 29-17 over the final 40 minutes – and the 19,544 in attendance grew more and more restless as the evening went along.

It wasn’t any more comfortable for Carlyle.

“We seemed we couldn’t make two passes,” he said. “We must’ve had five opportunities to get that puck out of the zone on the one shift, and we didn’t get it out. Five different people had an opportunity to control the puck and to make a play with it, and we just couldn’t get it out, and everything kind of snowballed from there.”

The most telling thing of all is that it wasn’t entirely clear which specific sequence he was referencing. There was more than one possibility.

“I couldn’t tell you when it got away from us, but I think you could see we got outworked,” said veteran centre David Bolland.

Perhaps the best news of all for the Leafs is that they get to play out the final few games away from home. There won’t be as many reminders about the disappointment of this season during visits to Tampa Bay (Tuesday), Florida (Thursday) and Ottawa (Saturday).

That is why the long-suffering fans of this organization seized on the opportunity they had to express their frustration Saturday night. It has been heard often here in recent years. This may very well have been James Reimer’s last game at home in a Leafs uniform – there’s a good chance the goaltender will be moved this summer – and he had no problem with the way it ended.

“We’ve all been fans before,” said Reimer. “You know you expect so much from your team and you want to win so badly that when things don’t go your way and maybe if you feel that they didn’t give it their all, which wasn’t the case here, we did we just didn’t have enough.

“They’re the ones paying the tickets; they have the right to do whatever they want.”

For sports fans in Toronto, it’s time to look elsewhere for entertainment. Another Blue Jays season is underway, the Raptors will soon be hosting playoff games and Toronto FC is off to the best start in franchise history (yes, the bar is pretty low on that one).

Meanwhile, the hockey team is still looking for answers. Forty-seven years and counting…

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