The Leafs were only 4-7 in shootouts this season, for the second year in a row struggling in the extra session. And the irony of the New York Islanders using the shootout to beat the New Jersey Devils 3-2 on Sunday was lost on no one.
“I’ve been saying for some time this year, it’s great for the fans, it’s hard for managers and coaches,” a crushed John Ferguson, the Leafs GM, said Sunday evening. “And watching another team control your fate is doubly hard, especially when there’s no time to do anything about it.”
The Islanders’ dramatic win on the last day of the regular season knocked Toronto out of the playoffs a day after a riveting win over Montreal at Air Canada Centre kept the Maple Leafs’ hopes alive.
Ferguson was back at the ACC to watch the Islanders game and found no fault in the Devils for not starting superstar goalie Martin Brodeur.
“There was no chance he was going to be in net today and I think we all would have been shocked if he was,” said Ferguson. “We controlled our destiny, we look to ourselves here. We left it one point short and that’s what came back to bite us.”
Losing 5-2 on Long Island last Thursday is one of many games the Leafs would like to have back.
“Sure, we can look at that one point in a lot of places over 82 games,” said Ferguson.
The Isles had a comfortable 2-0 lead in the third period Sunday before New Jersey scored twice, including the tying goal with one second left in regulation, to force overtime and revive Toronto’s playoff hopes.
“I’m sure for the fans it was pretty exciting,” said Leafs forward Kyle Wellwood, attending Sunday night’s Raptors NBA game. “When New Jersey scored at the end, it was unbelievable. With 15 seconds left, it looked like the Islanders were going to the clear the puck.
“When Jersey scored, we figured things might go our way.”
Ferguson fought to control tears during a media scrum in the Leafs dressing room held moments after the Isles’ victory.
“It’s going to take a little while to collect my thoughts here,” said a visibly emotional Ferguson. “Disappointing… A lot of good things happened for us this year. Some great play from a lot of the younger players. But all that’s lost on us at this point.”
Just how much progress is up for debate. The Leafs finished one point out of the playoffs a year after missing the post-season by two points. They scored 254 goals, the exact same number as last season, and gave up 263, one more than last season. And they picked up one more point in the standings than last year.
But in their defence, the Leafs were hammered by injuries, leading the NHL with 335 man-games lost.
“We had some real injuries to deal with, and unfortunately that did slow us up at different times of the year,” said Ferguson. “And I thought we overcame that pretty well. The players came in and did a very capable job even bordering on outstanding. But we were No. 1 in the league to man games lost to injury in what turned out to be the toughest division in the East and probably in the league to qualify.”
Ferguson’s own future will immediately come under scrutiny. He’s got another year left on his deal but has missed the playoffs two of his three seasons in charge.
“I don’t think he’s going anywhere,” Wellwood said of his GM.
Said Ferguson on his future: “I’m not in a position to comment on everything right now. These are things that will be addressed. These reviews occur annually at the end of the year.”
A disappointed Wellwood wondered what if. The Leafs beat the Buffalo Sabres three times this season and felt they could give them a run in the first round.
“I just think if we had made the playoffs we would have been a hard team to beat,” said Wellwood.
It was an exciting stretch run that felt just short, highlighted by big wins over New Jersey, Buffalo, Ottawa and Montreal. But the last few weeks of the season will also be remembered for key losses at Washington, Buffalo and Long Island.
“Just an exciting finish to the season but clearly disappointing for us,” said Ferguson. “We had enough opportunities during the year to take advantage of it. I had said during the year that I thought we needed to get to 10 games over .500, we got to nine and got the right to cheer for the Devils.”