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Maple Leafs still feel the playoff pain, but management looks to move forward

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

TORONTO - Three days after the Leafs' historic playoff collapse in Boston, the wound was still raw.

Did it hurt less this morning when you woke up, goalie James Reimer was asked at the Leafs' wrapup session Thursday.

"Not really," he answered.

"Sometimes you go through the day and you forget about it," he added. "You're doing something, you're talking about something with some guy. But then all of a sudden, you remember it, and you just get that sickening feeling in your stomach. And it just doesn't go away."

Centre Nazem Kadri was also having a tough time forgetting Toronto fumbling away a 4-1 third-period lead and then losing 5-4 in overtime in Game 7 Monday.

Boston's comeback, which included two goals with goalie Tuukka Rask pulled for an extra attacker, marked the first time in NHL history that a team had won a Game 7 after trailing by three goals in the third period.

"I had some nightmares the first couple of nights," Kadri said. "It wasn't fun thinking back to that game."

Added forward James van Riemsdyk: "It's one of those losses that kind of just eats away at your soul."

Flushing away the negatives was one of coach Randy Carlyle's mantras this season. But even he acknowledged this was one memory that was going to stick.

"Time will heal this, but we can never forget it," was Carlyle's message to his players.

"How can you ignore it? You can't," he told reporters. "It's reality."

Thursday's wrapup media session was the first time Carlyle and the players had talked since the TD Garden debacle which was witnessed by more than 5.1 million Canadian TV viewers.

A cloud of frustration clearly still lingers within the franchise, which had not made the playoffs since 2004.

Toronto finished fifth in the East with a 26-17-5 record.

"We're sitting here and we didn't win a round in the playoffs that we had an opportunity to seize," the coach said. "And that's the most disappointing part for us as a (coaching) staff right now.

"The feeling is frustration, it's lack of accomplishment, whatever. At times you feel like you were hit between the eyes with a hammer."

The Leafs want to ensure that the players do not pick away at the scab of the defeat over the summer. The issue was addressed the issue in exit meetings with the players.

"Nobody's feeling good about what happened, but we can't change what just happened ... We're going about building for next year," Carlyle said. "And (you) take what you can from the positives of this year and reflect upon the negatives.

"You just can't turn the page and move 180 degrees in the other direction without having some touch on the past. Do we want to dwell on it? No we don't. We're going to move on."

While GM Dave Nonis said the manner of the loss had to be addressed, he played down any lasting effects.

"It happened. We all know it happened. And I don't think it would ever happen again," he said. "I don't think we have to do anything differently because I think it's one of those things in sports—you'll see it once in a lifetime and we were part of it and that's unfortunate.

"I think we're going to have to deal with the pain for a while. But our players, most players, are going to focus on next season once they're done with their two weeks or three weeks of rest and relaxation. They're going to start focusing on next year, it's important that we get them focused."

Carlyle declined to say what areas needed to be strengthened. But he pointed to goal, defence and centre as key areas in any team.

"And if we can improve in any of those positions, I would think if there's a possibility—like any other hockey club—they would do that. And we would be looking to do that."

That did not seem to be a vote of confidence in Reimer, although Carlyle made a point of saying his words should not be seen as a criticism of any existing player.

"We're not any different than any other hockey club," he said with no shortage of starch in his voice when pressed on the goaltending issue. "If you had a chance to get the best goaltender in the world, what would you do?"

Nonis had a slightly different take on Reimer.

"At this point, I'd say he would be back as No. 1. He did a very good job for us ... I don't think anyone can point to goaltending as an issue with our team."

But Nonis echoed Carlyle's words that the team won't hesitate to make a move if it can upgrade any area. And he said there are no untouchables on his roster, although there were some players "unlikely" to be moved.

He did say he would not trade younger talent and high draft picks for older players.

Nonis said he hopes to sign first-line centre Tyler Bozak, who is due to become unrestricted free agent this summer, "if there is a contract that makes sense for us and makes sense for Tyler."

As for sniper Phil Kessel, Nonis offered effusive praise, calling him one of the top players in the league.

"I think this is the best stretch of hockey Phil Kessel's ever played," said the GM.

"He's a good person and he cares," he added. "I don't think there was a player on our team that was more devastated than Phil."

Kessel has a year left on his contract.

"There's no urgency in getting him signed to an extension," Nonis said. "But Phil Kessel's going to be a good player in this league for a long time and if there's a deal there that makes sense for both of us, then no question we'd like to bring him back for an extended period."

While the salary cap is going down next season, the Leafs GM said the club is "in a fairly good position cap-wise."

Nonis was blunt about his playoff-green team's performance in the opening game of the Boston series—a lacklustre 4-1 loss.

"Game 1 of the series you saw a team that had no idea what was coming our way, that had not been in the playoffs for the most part. And we looked like a deer in the headlights."

Nonis exempted van Riemsdyk from that list, saying he had been in the playoffs before (with Philadelphia) and was prepared.

"But I think after Game 1, I don't think we had a player take a night off," he added. "I think, in a lot of ways and a lot of the time, we were the better team."

Nonis said while the team had improved, it needs to add more pieces and get better.

"We've taken some significant steps but we're not there. We're not playing tonight."

But he said the coaching staff got "everything out of these players."

Carlyle, meanwhile, called it a season of both high and low points.

"We're going to have to play the game to a higher level more consistently," he said.

Also Thursday, Bozak revealed that he missed the final two games of the regular season after tearing his oblique. He played through that before tearing his triceps on the final faceoff of Game 5 of the Bruins series.

Defenceman Mark Fraser, who didn't play after taking a puck to the face in Game 4, showed off his battle scars. He suffered a frontal skull fracture.

"Thankfully there's no brain damage, no bleeding," he said matter-of-factly.

Fraser's forehead featured a boomerang-shaped trail of stitches, as if someone had taken a can-opener to his head.

Star winger Joffrey Lupul did not talk to the media Thursday. On Tuesday, he tweeted: "That hockey game will haunt me until the day I die..."



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