MONTREAL - The Toronto Maple Leafs had quickly fading playoff hopes when they last faced the Montreal Canadiens. Just over a month later, their precipitous drop through the Eastern Conference standings mercifully came to an end.
Toronto's seventh straight season without a playoff berth ended Saturday night with a 4-1 loss in Montreal.
"It's disappointing," Toronto defenceman John-Michael Liles said. "We had ourselves in a great position but at the same time I think we can take some lessons out of it and hopefully put it to good use in the future."
The Maple Leafs were sixth in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 6 with a 28-19-6 record for 62 points after a 6-3 win over Edmonton before their free-fall out of the playoff picture.
Ron Wilson was fired on Mar. 3 with the Maple Leafs in the midst of a 1-9-1 skid that dropped them to 12th place in the conference.
Randy Carlyle made his debut behind the bench with a 3-1 win over the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, but the Maple Leafs were well on their way out of a playoff spot by then.
"This is akin to an 18-wheeler going off a cliff," Toronto GM Brian Burke said at the morning press conference announcing the coaching change.
The desperate move failed to gain any traction as the Leafs lost their next five games under Carlyle, who finished with a 6-9-3 mark.
Toronto finished 13th in the East with a 35-37-10 mark and 80 points.
"These players have to commit to a higher level of intensity, conditioning, and all out work ethic, and that's not something that's going to be taken very lightly," said Carlyle, who guided Anaheim to the Stanley Cup in 2007. "We're going to maintain that there is more for this group to give and we're going to ask more and they better be prepared to bring more."
The last of six season meetings in the NHL's longest-running rivalry was as anticlimactic as could be imagined with Montreal locked into a last-place finish in the East.
Ben Scrivens made his fourth straight start in the finale after posting a 2-0-1 record in his three previous outings, including wins over Buffalo and Tampa Bay.
"It was a big confidence booster for me to have the coaches decide to go back with me against Tampa Bay, and again here tonight," said Scrivens, who will rejoin the Toronto Marlies in time for the AHL playoffs. "It's a good feeling."
Toronto had a glorious opportunity to get off to a fast start 3:11 in when Montreal's Josh Gorges was called for delay of game when his clearing attempt sailed over the glass with Blake Geoffrion already in the box for boarding.
The Leafs, never ones to make things easy on themselves, were instead the victims of a rare goal against while on a 5-on-3 power play. Centre Tomas Plekanec raced down the ice and left the puck to slide through Scrivens for an unassisted short-handed goal at 3:20.
Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf scored his 12th goal early in the third to draw Toronto within 2-1 between goals by Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole, Montreal's two 30-goal scorers. Canadiens forward Brad Staubitz scored into an empty net with just under two minutes remaining.
"We definitely have got to play to a higher level to have success," said Phaneuf, who confirmed that he would play for Canada at the world championships in Finland and Sweden. "We didn't win enough games after the all-star break and that's why we're not going on to the playoffs.
"The bottom line is we didn't play well enough, we didn't raise our game to the level that it needed to be going down the stretch when teams really step up a level."
Toronto all-star Phil Kessel failed to record a point as he finished with 37 goals and 45 points for 82 points. He is the 16th player in team history to reach 80 points and the first since Mats Sundin in 2001-02.