Montreal Canadiens right winger Brendan Gallagher (right) and Toronto Maple Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski battle for the puck during first period NHL action in Toronto on Saturday April 27, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
TORONTO - It's been nine years since the Maple Leafs have made the playoffs and they're going into the 2013 post-season playing as if they don't belong.
"I was mystified tonight," Toronto coach Randy Caryle said in the aftermath of Saturday night's sluggish 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the regular-season finale for both team.
The Leafs showed a bit of jump to start—the Habs went without a shot for the first 11 minutes of the game,—and led 1-0 on a first-period Phil Kessel power-play goal. But they faded fast and Montreal went to the dressing room tied 1-1 and outshooting Toronto 9-6.
There was barely signs of a pulse in a second period that saw Montreal score twice.
"For whatever reason, it was like we went brain-dead," said Carlyle. "Our execution level went way down."
How bad were the Leafs before a season-high crowd of 19,730? They managed one shot in the second period despite having three power plays.
One of those man-advantages saw captain Dion Phaneuf mishandle the puck at the blue-line, a Leafs player fire the puck into the netting above the glass and an icing call.
They might as well have sent a line of Larry, Curly and Moe over the boards. It couldn't have been worse.
Toronto and Montreal could meet in the playoffs. But that wasn't decided Saturday because Boston added to its point total by going to overtime in a loss to Washington, meaning that the Eastern Conference playoff matchup picture won't be complete until Sunday when Boston plays Ottawa in a makeup game.
If Boston wins Sunday, the Leafs play Montreal. A Bruins loss and it's Boston versus Toronto.
Forward Jay McClement said the Leafs had to look after their own house, rather than wonder about their playoff opponent.
"We need to figure out our own game, no matter who we're playing. Because if we play like that tonight, it won't be good enough."
The way Toronto is playing, Boston fans may not regret losing Sunday.
"The idea of (Montreal versus Toronto) is pretty cool," said Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher. "Obviously I'm assuming it would be the most emotional first-round series ever, so that aspect of it is cool. But for us, we don't really care who we're playing. It's about us. It matters what we do and that's all we're talking about. We'll watch the game (Sunday) and find out who we play."
The Leafs (26-17-5) end the season having lost four of their last six, during which they've been outscored 20-15.
Kessel scored his 20th goal of the season for Toronto, notching his 10th goal in as many games.
Lars Eller had a goal and two assists to pace the Canadiens' pre-playoff message to Toronto. Gallagher, Andrei Markov, and Thomas Plekanec also scored for Montreal, which won despite going 0-for-6 on the power play.
The Canadiens (29-14-5) did it without No. 1 goalie Carey Price, who was given the night off in favour of Peter Budaj. Rubbing salt into the wound, Montreal chased Toronto starter James Reimer early in the third period.
"We wanted to impose the rhythm," Montreal coach Michel Therrien said in French. "The players did a fantastic job executing the game plan. These are games with a lot of emotion and the type of game you want to play. They executed it fantastically tonight."
Montreal outshot Toronto 28-17 on the night. And by the final whistle the Leafs had lost their discipline with a string of penalties.
Tough guy Kyle McLaren got an early shower at 3:05 of the third period when he got minors for roughing and charging, a 10-minute misconduct and a game misconduct after misbehaving during a melee. There were no other penalties on the play.
Toronto's Clarke MacArthur also exited early with minors for slashing and unsportsmanlike conduct and a 10-minute misconduct.
The final penalty count was 44 minutes for Toronto to 16 for Montreal.
Carlyle replaced Reimer with Ben Scrivens after Montreal made it 4-1 on the Canadiens' 23rd shot, a soft goal that Plekanec sent over Reimer's shoulder at 2:25 of the third period.
"It wasn't my best game," said Reimer. "A couple of unlucky bounces and stuff like that. You take some of the positives and then you flush it."
Carlyle agreed on both counts.
"I don't think he was as sharp as he's been, that's for sure," the coach said of Reimer. "He's been outstanding for our hockey club so it's hard to cast anything in that direction. I don't think we supported him ... tonight."
Asked how much time he would spend on the game, Carlyle wasted no time answering.
"None. It's over."
Said defenceman Mark Fraser: "The mindset now is to move on. Thankfully we're in a position where we can."
McClement had a different view.
"I don't think it's time to quite flush this game quite yet," he counselled. "I think we can still learn from it and have this in the back of our minds, that's it's only going to get tougher and we have to have our A game every night and regroup from there."
Toronto came into the game having won three of the four previous meetings between the two this season, outscoring the Canadiens 15-7. The Habs' lone win prior to Saturday was a 5-2 decision Feb. 27 in Toronto.
Montreal had gone 2-5-0 since clinching its playoff spot April 11 with a win in Buffalo.
The Leafs chased Price in their last meeting, beating him three times on just four shots in a 5-1 win April 13 at Air Canada Centre.
Toronto's first-line centre Tyler Bozak sat out for the second game in a row with an upper-body injury. Nazem Kadri took his place alongside Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk or Joffrey Lupul.
The Leaf power play went 1-for-7.
Mayhem seemed imminent when Carlyle started Colton Orr, McLaren and Fraser for the opening faceoff. Orr and Montreal's Brandon Prust were jawing before the puck drop but stuck to hockey after one of the referees skated over to have words.