Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON
James Reimer (TOR) — 39 saves
Alex Ovechkin (WSH) — 1G
Dion Phaneuf had just finished speaking to the media scrum in the Maple Leafs’ locker room. The Leaf captain wasn’t happy, and nobody could fault him for that after Toronto, despite going 6-1-1 in its last eight games, was eliminated from the playoff race two minutes before the team’s game against Washington ended on Tuesday, thanks to a Buffalo victory.
Despite Phaneuf’s much-improved play over the last half of the season, he wasn’t the main attraction when the media gathered after the Leafs’ 80th and final meaningful game of the 2010-11 season ended, a 3-2 shootout loss to the Caps.
Phaneuf knew it too, and after a few kind words for the star attraction, the captain departed the scene, leaving everybody to crowd around the main reason for Toronto’s success after the all-star break, waiting for him to speak as he gingerly signed a young Leaf fan’s shirt.
And even with all the disappointment permeating the dressing room, the 23-year-old possible phenom-in-the-making was doing something he did every single time he was surrounded by cameras. Something none of the other Leafs in the room could bring themselves to do that night. Something that should be impossible for a guy in his position, with his experience, in this city.
James Reimer was smiling.
"We can hold our heads high," said the Winnipeg goalie, after coming up with one of his best games of the season as Washington peppered Toronto’s net with 41 shots to the Leafs’ 21. "We’ve gained a lot of confidence."
End of the line
Here is a year-by-year list of the dates of the season in which the Toronto Maple Leafs have been eliminated from the playoff race during their current six-season drought.
2006 — April 15 — 3rd last game
2007 – April 7 (8) — Last Game*
2008 — March 27 — 5th last game
2009 — April 1 — 6th Last game
2010 — March 30 — 6th last game
2011 — April 5 — 3rd last game
*In 2007, the New York Islanders eliminated the Leafs with win a day after Toronto ended the regular season
Indeed, while the other Leafs available to the media after the heartbreaking night ended looked as if they were still shouldering the burden that comes with trying to satisfy the appetite of a hockey-mad, success-starved city, Reimer looked the way he always has since his appearance in net sparked an 18-7-6 run that put his team within striking distance of a playoff spot.
Unfazed. Taking everything in stride.
"We played our hearts out [during the run]," he said. "[We] did everything we could."
Reimer made big save after big save to keep the Leafs in the game, making 39 stops against the high-flying Capitals. Washington’s only lead came when Mike Knuble scored the shootout winner — in the fourth round.
"He was obviously very good," said Leaf coach Ron Wilson. "He gave us every chance in the world to give us a point [against Washington], if not two." That included making one of the saves of the season for the Leafs, a diving stop on Marcus Johansson to keep the score tied with eight minutes left.
The crowd at the Air Canada Centre responded by standing and chanting "Reimer! Reimer! Reimer!", then giving him the loudest ovation of the night when he was named first star of the game. "He’s been phenomenal for us," Phaneuf said.
Alex Ovechkin — now with an incredible 12 goals and 11 assists in his last 10 games against Toronto — and John Erskine scored for Washington.
Before the night began, Toronto needed to win all three games in regulation or overtime, have Buffalo lose its last three games, and hope ninth-place Carolina dropped at least three points in its final stretch. That all went up in smoke when Buffalo beat Tampa Bay 4-2.
The result also meant Washington clinched the Southeast Division crown no matter the result in Toronto, and the Caps also have a great shot at getting the No. 1 seed in the East.
But over in Leafland, for the first time in a long time there seems to be something brewing. In the end we’ll feel good about [this run] and build on it," Wilson said.
Nikolai Kulemin became Toronto’s second 30-goal scorer of the season witha gaol against Washington. Joffrey Lupul also scored to continue his hot streak. With an assist Phil Kessel added to his points streak (now at eight).
"Everybody’s going to be really excited to get back here," Lupul added. But as it normally does, everything began in net for Toronto’s run.
And even though the lights are out on the playoffs for the Leafs, Reimer reacted the way he has since he burst onto the scene a couple months ago. Unfazed. Taking it in stride.
"[I had] a tonne of fun," he said. "I’ve been playing hockey for a living."