The epic fall is complete. The Toronto Maple Leafs will endure another spring without meaningful hockey.
A 3-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night officially eliminated the Leafs from playoff contention in the Eastern Conference, extending the franchise-worst streak to seven seasons.
It was only fitting that the final blow came on home ice. Hours after new coach Randy Carlyle called the team's play at Air Canada Centre "unacceptable," it dug another early hole and lost its 10th straight game in front of the disgruntled home fans — setting yet another franchise mark for futility.
"The thing is we haven't done anything good really," said forward Phil Kessel. "It's frustrating for all of us. We're all disappointed obviously. We wish we could win games.
"I don't really know what to think."
There might yet still be further depths to reach before the season comes to a merciful close.
The Leafs now sit 26th overall in the NHL — putting them in position to receive a lottery draft pick — and could still be passed by three of the teams behind them. That's especially true with three of the five remaining games in their own building, where they haven't registered a victory since Feb. 6.
At that point, Toronto sat sixth in the conference and was only two points back of fourth, prompting some brief talk about making a push for home-ice advantage in the playoffs. They've gone 5-16-3 since.
"To have the collapse that we've had and the amount of games that we've lost and not been able to turn it around, it's been extremely disappointing for the group," said captain Dion Phaneuf. "It felt like snowballing. We just could not find a way to climb back into it."
Some familiar problems surfaced again Tuesday.
After digging an early hole, the Leafs couldn't get anything by Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward despite firing 30 shots in his direction. It was the seventh time they've been held without a goal this season, including four of the last 10 games — all since Carlyle replaced Ron Wilson.
Ward picked up his 21st career shutout.
"We got off to a good start," he said. "We were ready and we carried the majority of the play in the first period. It was a solid 60-minute effort by our team."
Jussi Jokinen, Tim Brent and Jay Harrison scored goals for Carolina (31-31-15), which kept its own slim playoff hopes alive for at least one more day. The Maple Leafs saw their record fall to 33-35-9.
|Eastern Playoff Race||PTS||GP||**ROW|
|*Division Leader **ROW = Regulation + OT Wins x-clinched playoff berth|
There was very little suspense on a night that saw the Hurricanes grab a 2-0 lead in the first period. Leafs starter Jonas Gustavsson was deep in his net on both shots, allowing Jokinen to beat him with a backhander at 13:05 and Brent to roof a shot off a defender's stick at 18:19.
The second goal brought on boos that would only intensify when Harrison floated a wrist shot past Gustavsson 37 seconds into the second period.
"Whatever they shot at the net seemed to find a way to go through our goaltender," Carlyle said. "It sucked a lot of life out of us."
After the third goal, Carlyle sent in Jussi Rynnas for the first NHL action of his career. The 24-year-old Finn had been called up earlier in the day after expected starter James Reimer was ruled out with an upper-body injury and stopped all 10 shots he faced.
The Leafs attempted to come on — outshooting the Hurricanes 12-7 in the middle period — but the damage was already done and Ward wasn't going to be beaten.
Carlyle has frequently referenced the fragile confidence of the group, particularly when it gets behind on home ice. With speculation already starting about what personnel changes might be coming this summer, the Leafs players aren't ready to entertain that idea.
"We can't ask for anyone else to come in and be Jesus here," said Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson. "It's up to us. I don't think we need a saviour, we can do it on our own. It's just a matter of turning it around and getting our minds into it and I think if everyone believes it we can do it."
There isn't any belief left in Toronto.
Starting Thursday night against Philadelphia, the Leafs have three more chances to try and get a victory at home this season — one small goal they're surely looking to achieve. With nothing else to play for, that's what another lost year has come to.
"It's tough right now," Kessel said. "I think everyone's real disappointed, real frustrated. It's not good."
Of that, there is no doubt.