For the first 30 minutes or so of Game 82 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs were putting it in their calendars: Games 1 and 2 against the Senators in Ottawa Wednesday and Friday. It was a scenario many, maybe most, didn’t dare to entertain a couple of months ago.
Having clinched a berth in the playoffs with a come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh Saturday night, the Leafs needed one point in their final regular-season game the next night to reboot the Battle of Ontario.
Alas, it did not come to pass.
The Leafs lost 3-2 to the Blue Jackets, leaving Toronto as the wildest of wild-cards in the Eastern Conference. They’ll fly off to Washington this week where the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals await.
"Last night [against Pittsburgh] was emotional," coach Mike Babcock said after the loss Sunday evening. "I was worried whether we’d have enough juice. We had to go 14-5-1 to get [into the playoffs] and a lot of those games were tough."
On the face of it, the season-ender against Columbus didn’t necessarily look like a tough game. As it was with Pittsburgh, the Blue Jackets came to the ACC with nothing at stake—they were locked into third place in the Metropolitan Division and aiming to come out of Sunday night unbruised and beyond coach John Tortorella’s reproach. It would have been impossible for the players on the Columbus roster not to be looking ahead to their first-round matchup against their own bitter rivals, the defending Cup-champion Penguins.
It turned out the Blue Jackets didn’t make the trip to Toronto to lay down for the home side.
The outlook for the Leafs in Game 82 appeared somewhat cloudy when coach Mike Babcock submitted the lineup: Frederik Andersen, the No. 1 goalie and in the mind of many the team’s MVP this unlikely season, was scratched. He had exited Saturday night’s game when he took a headshot from the Penguins’ Tom Sesito, destined to be a villain in Toronto for as long as he draws breath.
There remained reason to believe in the form of backup Curtis McElhinney, who had come in for Andersen Saturday to get the W and got it done whenever called on late in the season. You had to figure that McElhinney would be at the top of his game against the Blue Jackets, who had waived him mid-season. For their part, Columbus was giving the night off to their No. 1 Sergei Bobrovsky and throwing backup Joonas Korpisalo in to mop up the regular season. McElhinney had a .918 save percentage coming into the game, Korpisalo a .902. It looked like advantage Toronto.
For the first 10 minutes of Game 82, it looked like McElhinney’s save percentage was immaterial and like the Maple Leafs couldn’t lose to Columbus in anything but a shootout. That would be the only way you could lose when you don’t allow a puck on the net in regulation and overtime, and halfway through the first period the Leafs were pitching the ultimate shutout. Extreme caution combined with the majority of puck possession managed to keep the Blue Jackets shot-less in the first half of the opening frame. Columbus finally broke through and tested McElhinney a couple of times in the period but shots stood 12-6 at the intermission, a promising sign for the home team.
Things looked even better for the Leafs when James van Riemsdyk scored twice early in the middle period. Yet Babcock’s worst worries were painfully realized.
One sign that things might go sideways and fast: McElhinney’s work rate went from zero to harried. After going completely untested through the opening shifts, McElhinney faced 17 shots in a 20-minute stretch. In part, the Jackets were having success because two defencemen, Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were knocked out of the game. The veteran Polak returned after treatment but the Russian rookie was hors de combat the rest of the way and the Leafs had to go with four awfully weary defencemen against Columbus forwards looking for a chance to fatten their stats.
"It makes it tough when you’re down to four D in the second game of a back-to-back," van Riemsdyk said.
Harder still when you count backwards: For the Leafs it was their fifth game in seven nights.
"We knew this stretch was going to be tough," van Riemsdyk said.
Over a seven-minute stretch to close out the second period the Blue Jackets scored all the goals they’d need to dispatch the Leafs, with Matt Calvert and Josh Anderson tying the game and the pesky, under-celebrated all-star Cam Atkinson notching the winner – his 35th goal of the season.
In the third period, the home team’s juice ran out almost entirely. Auston Matthews had the best chance to tie the game and send the team off to Ottawa. With six minutes to go Matthews crashed the net and had Korpisalo down, but the puck brushed off the post, leaving the Leafs to try their luck against the NHL’s best regular-season team on Thursday.