TAMPA, Fla. – There was no way to dress up this disaster. What you got instead from the Toronto Maple Leafs after their playoff hopes were officially dashed on Tuesday night was honesty.
There was Phil Kessel making the long walk to the bus through the bowels of the Tampa Bay Times Forum while falling on the sword. The sniper was one of the team’s absolute best players all year long – he’s one goal and three points shy of establishing career highs – but couldn’t stomach the thought that he managed just three goals during the ugly 2-10-0 collapse down the stretch.
“I’m disappointed for Leafs Nation,” Kessel said after a 3-0 loss to Tampa. “Obviously, it’s not good enough. Obviously, I haven’t been good enough for the last 15 games and I need to be better.
"I’m really disappointed and I feel like I’ve let a lot of people down that are Leafs fans."
Then there was coach Randy Carlyle, who has been under fire for guiding a team that is dealing with huge defensive deficiencies. He was so disappointed after the final buzzer sounded that he chose not to address his players in the dressing room.
Carlyle was still steaming when he faced questions from reporters about 30 minutes after reality hit and admitted that he was "embarrassed" about how everything played out over the last few weeks.
"I think we have more than what we were able to accomplish," said Carlyle. "That’s the most troubling issue here. We just didn’t find a way to compete to a level that was necessary and execute to a (high enough) level."
Everywhere you looked you could see frustration. Everyone you spoke with wore a solemn look. Even though it would have taken a miracle to make a late charge, this made an impact.
James Reimer said "we weren’t good enough." David Clarkson said "we believe we’re better than that." Dion Phaneuf said he felt "terrible."
This, of course, won’t be enough to satisfy fans and it shouldn’t mean anything to a management team that has all kinds of interesting decisions to make. The bottom line is that this was yet another collapse – make it a hat trick over the last three seasons – and some fundamental issues need to be addressed.
Few, if any, would have seen this tailspin coming when the Leafs beat Los Angeles on March 13. They had a nine-point cushion at that point and were sitting second in the Atlantic Division. However, that was followed by an ugly eight-game losing streak – all of them in regulation – and the Leafs simply couldn’t get themselves back on track with the playoffs approaching.
"When we came out of the California trip, we thought that we’d proven to ourselves that we can compete with some of the good teams," said Carlyle. "We wanted to take the next step but it went in the other direction for us. We don’t have the answers right now (about) why it happened that way.
"We’re all responsible."
Ultimately, it may be the coach who has to pay the price for what happened here. MLSE president Tim Lieweke isn’t known for being patient and there’s a feeling that he may consider some changes to the hockey operations department – be they in personnel or possibly creating a new position above general manager Dave Nonis.
The bottom line is that everything has to be up for review when you find yourself in a situation like this one. There can be no other way forward.
For what it’s worth, the Leafs showed up for a must-win game against Tampa Bay. They came out charging in the first period and maintained a consistent effort throughout, but couldn’t solve goaltender Anders Lindback – who replaced the injured Ben Bishop early on.
More than anything, this group looked like it was out of gas. This team has tried to put the pedal to the floor in recent weeks and saw Joffrey Lupul (knee), Jonathan Bernier (groin) and David Bolland (ankle) all re-aggravate injuries as a result. None of those players was available to face the Lightning.
Kessel wasn’t the same player after returning from the Sochi Olympics at the end of February, but dismissed a question about whether fatigue played a factor in his struggles. He, Phaneuf and James van Riemsdyk are also believed to have been playing through some pain.
Even with all of that, though, this was a difficult outcome to digest.
"If you look at us, it really sucks because for 85 percent of the year we were one of the top-10 teams in the league," Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said this week. "I think that’s something to be proud of, but it also kind of hits you even lower when you fall out of the playoff spot when that was the case.
"We definitely know we can be one of those teams to be reckoned with, it’s just a matter of keeping it all together."
It remains to be seen which of them will get the chance. There will obviously be personnel changes. Everyone from Reimer to Nikolai Kulemin to Paul Ranger to Jay McClement (and others) may make their final appearances in a Leafs uniform this week when Toronto finishes out the schedule with visits to Florida and Ottawa.
The mere thought of that had Kessel shaking his head in frustration late Tuesday night. He signed a $64-million, eight-year extension the morning this season began back on Oct. 1 because he believed the group was on the verge of bigger and better things.
Instead, they took a distressing step backwards.
"We’re all disappointed, we all get along great," said Kessel. "You know, we’re all upset about this right? I think you don’t get how much time and effort we put into this. Blood, sweat and tears.
"It’s just really disappointing the way it ended."