TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs refused to stop fighting until time ran out on their season.
An unlikely playoff push came to an end about 15 minutes before Washington's Mike Knuble gave his team a 3-2 victory Tuesday over the Maple Leafs with the only goal in a four-round shootout. Instead, Toronto's fate was sealed just up the highway where Buffalo beat Tampa 4-2—a result everyone on the team's bench was well aware of.
"It was unfortunate we put ourselves in the predicament we did where we had to run the table," said Leafs goalie James Reimer. "We played our hearts out, we did everything we could. We've fallen short right now but I'm proud of the way we battled for the last couple months, especially today too.
"Going into overtime I think we all saw the score, that Buffalo had won, and we could have packed it in right there. As far as I could see, we controlled most of the overtime."
Reimer was the heart and soul of the Maple Leafs during an 18-7-6 run after the all-star break that kept the team's chances alive until the final days of the regular season. Few, if any, could have expected that when they trailed eighth place in the Eastern Conference by 12 points coming out of the break.
The rookie goaltender had another excellent game against the Caps with 41 saves—six of them coming off the stick of Alex Ovechkin, who looks fresh and rejuvenated with the playoffs just around the corner.
"Taking nothing away from the way the Leafs have played in the last month and a half, but (Reimer) was a real difference-maker today," said Washington coach Bruce Boudreau. "We had some 10-bell chances and he rose to the test. I think the Leafs have got a good goalie there."
With the playoff race officially over, the end of the game was anti-climactic. A number of fans had already headed for the exits at Air Canada Centre before the shootout even started.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson was receiving up-to-the-second updates from Buffalo and would have pulled Reimer in overtime to try and get the winner if the Sabres had lost. His players knew what was going on too.
"They had that ticker kind of going around the rink," said Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn. "We were checking every once and awhile. I was sitting beside Timmy Brent in the third period and he said it was 3-2 and then 4-2, he was giving me updates."
It's the franchise-record sixth straight season the Maple Leafs will miss out on the playoffs. Only the Florida Panthers, who haven't qualified since 2000, are currently locked in a longer drought.
"As players, we play to play in the playoffs, we play to try and win the Stanley Cup," said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. "When you're eliminated from getting that opportunity, it doesn't feel very good."
Ovechkin and John Erskine scored in regulation for the Capitals (47-22-11), who clinched the Southeast Division title for a fourth straight year.
Nikolai Kulemin and Joffrey Lupul replied for Toronto (37-32-11).
The team didn't show the same energy it had in winning six of the past seven games to keep its faint hopes alive. Washington outshot the Leafs 26-10 through two periods and would have ended the game long before the shootout if not for the play of Reimer.
"They looked a little tired—mentally tired," said Boudreau. "It's hard hanging on and hanging on and hanging on. I thought as the game wore on we kept getting it deep and wearing them down a little bit."
Kulemin got the Leafs off to a good start with his 30th goal of the season. With linemates Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur going to the net, he fooled Michal Neuvirth with a wrist shot off the rush at 5:37 on a power play.
Toronto did a nice job of carrying the early momentum but it started to slip away with two straight penalties.
Ovechkin tied it 1-1 while the Caps held a 5-on-3 advantage, wiring a point shot past Reimer for his 31st of the season and 300th of his NHL career.
"It feels good," said Ovechkin. "When you score 300 goals in six years, it's a big accomplishment. I play for a great team."
The Leafs went back ahead just 1:35 into the second period. Phil Kessel found Lupul with a perfect cross-ice pass and the big winger converted his fifth goal in the last seven games.
Washington continued to press and was rewarded with a good bounce when Erskine's wrist shot from the point bounced off Schenn's glove and into the goal at 12:07.
Toronto's dressing room was understandably subdued after the game, but Reimer felt proud after looking around at his teammates and reflecting on what they had accomplished.
"GMs and coaches, they want players that can play in the playoffs," said Reimer. "As far as I'm concerned, this team has been playing in the playoffs for two months now and I think we've been playing great.
"We can hold our heads high, we're proud of the way we worked."
Before heading to the showers, he signed autographs for a young cancer patient and told her he hopes to see her at another Leafs game soon.
Notes: Fredrik Sjostrom and Brett Lebda were scratched for Toronto ... Caps defenceman Mike Green sat out his 18th straight game with a concussion, but could return for Wednesday's game against Florida ... Alex Semin also sat out for Washington ... It was Erskine's first goal since Nov. 26 ... Announced attendance was 19,509.