Game 80: The End
So that's it. This uneven, teeter-totter of a season has come to an unofficial end.
It happened at precisely 9:26 p.m.
Toronto and Washington were tied 2-2 at the ACC. But the fate of Leafs Nation was settled across the border when Buffalo scored into an empty net, giving them a 4-2 win over Tampa and, more important, giving Leaf fans a sixth consecutive year without postseason action.
To be honest, I'm surprised by how hard it hit me. Even this morning, as I wheeled out the recycling and fed the cats, the feeling of disappointment was wildly out of proportion with reality.
I mean, we knew "mathematical elimination" was all but inevitable. It may have been written in invisible ink but it was in our calendars some time ago. This race was always the longest of long shots. The odds never moved beyond grim. The surge was doomed, likely to run out of space and time.
Over the last few weeks, as this young team clawed their way out from the crater they dug during a disastrous first half, it was hard not to admire their own fierce determination, their own faith in the impossible.
At 9:31, as regulation time ended and the cameras showed the bench, I actually winced. The silhouette of those slouched bodies – every face etched with crushed disappointment – showed just how much they believed.
The pundits are now free to wag their fingers and conduct armchair postmortems on 2010-2011. The self-appointed experts can make sense of what happened, what should happen and what might possibly happen.
Me, I just want to say thank you to this young team.
Am I delusional? Crazy? A glutton for punishment? Has years of on-ice mediocrity dulled my critical faculties and lowered my expectations to zero? Am I suffering from a godforsaken mix of Stockholm Syndrome and Blind Faith?
All I really know is this: For the first time in a long time, I am bidding farewell to a season with no regrets and no residual anger. History may deem 2010-2011 to be another failure but it sure as hell doesn't feel that way at 8:53 a.m. this morning.
So, thank you.
Having watched every minute of every game this season, I believe my beloved team is finally, at long last, on the right track. The pieces are coming together. The future looks brighter than it has for quite some time.
In my opinion, my proudly biased opinion, this is not The End. It is The Beginning and I can't wait until the fall.
PHOTOS: STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR