TORONTO — Few in the Maple Leafs room know what it feels like to clinch a playoff berth in the NHL and it showed some Thursday night.
The Leafs had a chance to punch their first ticket to the post-season since 2013, but fell flat against the Tampa Bay Lightning — downed 4-1 at the Air Canada Centre. Afterward, head coach Mike Babcock wondered whether the group was tightening up as the city prepared itself for a once unlikely entry in the playoffs.
"We made it way harder than it should be," Babcock said. "You go over and over a foundation of how to play so in the big moments you do what you do, but we didn't do that."
The defeat kept the Lightning and Islanders alive in the race for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot while ensnaring the Leafs in a precarious weekend challenge — albeit one in which they control their own fate. Secure two points over two games against Pittsburgh and Columbus, two Metropolitan division heavyweights, and the club marches into the playoffs for only the second time since 2004.
Fall short and talk of another late-season meltdown follows.
Among the five players remaining from the last Leafs playoff squad (and also those that fell apart in now infamous fashion), Tyler Bozak didn't think the group was feeling the weight of clinching despite of the lacklustre showing against Tampa, which followed a 4-1 loss to Washington on Tuesday.
"No, I think we're excited," Bozak said. "Me personally I haven't been in this position a lot so it's nice to be a part of it and it's something that we're really enjoying. So hopefully we have a better result next game."
Seemingly fatigued in their loss to the Capitals, the Leafs looked like they had some energy back in the early-going against the Lightning, nearly scoring with a pair of chances on the second of two straight power plays — one from Bozak, the other from Nazem Kadri.
Auston Matthews, among the many first-year Leafs looking to get into the playoffs for the first time, was noticeable in the opening 20 minutes too. He was crunched at one point by fellow rookie Jake Dotchin — the two players banging knees — and then nearly scored a few minutes after that.
But chances were relatively few for a usually high-powered offence. Andrei Vasilevskiy faced only 27 shots, sharp when the Leafs posed any threat, which was mostly early.
Babcock thought his team looked unusually slow.
The Lightning, by contrast, looked like the plucky group that's risen from the ashes to join the playoff race.
A rising 21-year-old talent, Brayden Point has been near the front of that surge and he scored on a second-period power play to give Tampa the 1-0 lead. Kadri struck back a couple minutes later with his 32nd goal of the year, but the Lightning climbed in front once more shortly thereafter.
It was magic from Nikita Kucherov, the 23-year-old Russian sliding through the slot before whipping his 39th goal of the year past Frederik Andersen.
Tampa extended the lead to two early in the third frame, any chance of a playoff celebration for the Leafs sealed when Point added his second 12 minutes or so after that.
Victor Hedman was a star for the Lightning, too, the Norris trophy candidate piling up three assists in almost 29 minutes.
Frustration was apparent on the other bench with a second opportunity to clinch slipping away. The Leafs could have eliminated the Lightning with a victory.
"Obviously everyone wants to win and I don't know if you can say we're nervous, but maybe we need to be a little bit sharper and just go from there," veteran Leo Komarov said.
Earlier in the week, Babcock and his players were getting peppered with questions about what it might be like for Toronto to have playoff hockey again. The coach kept brushing those queries back, insisting that his team needed to get in first before they could start imagining what the city would be like and perhaps this was why.
Babcock was likely weary of his team jumping the gun on playoffs before they actually nailed down a spot. Their test now is getting two points any way, any how, over the weekend, a tough task given the opponents.
"I think the players would like to be in the playoffs as much as for the fans as for themselves. I'd like to be in the playoffs, too," Babcock said. "But forget about that, just do what you do. Play D-zone like you do. Win faceoffs like you do. Get through the neutral zone like you do. Forecheck like you do. Just focus on doing your job and good things happen to you."
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press