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Leafs complete collapse with loss to Lightning

There will be no miracle finish for the Toronto Maple Leafs – only another disappointing season defined by a collapse.

In this case, the Maple Leafs lost 10 of 12 games down the stretch to go from comfortably inside the Eastern Conference playoff picture to being concerned with their standing in the draft lottery. That is the only piece of drama left for this group.

The end officially came when the final buzzer sounded on Tuesday’s 3-0 Lightning victory at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. By then Columbus had already earned a 4-3 overtime victory over Phoenix to strengthen its grip on a wild card position.

A Leafs victory would have delayed the inevitable for at least another day, but the team looked completely out of gas. Trailing 2-0, it took nine minutes to even register a shot on goal in the third period.

Few, if any, would have seen this tailspin coming when the Leafs beat Los Angeles on March 13. They had a nine-point cushion at that point and were sitting second in the Atlantic Division. However, that was followed by an ugly eight-game losing streak – all of them in regulation – and the Leafs simply couldn’t get themselves back on track with the playoffs approaching.

“If you look at us, it really sucks because for 85 percent of the year we were one of the top-10 teams in the league,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said this week. “I think that’s something to be proud of, but it also kind of hits you even lower when you fall out of the playoff spot when that was the case.

“We definitely know we can be one of those teams to be reckoned with, it’s just a matter of keeping it all together.”

It remains to be seen which of them will get the chance. Changes are certainly coming – head coach Randy Carlyle is on the hot seat, as are many of his players – and general manager Dave Nonis will have some tough decisions to make over the summer.

Before that happens, the Leafs have two more meaningless games to play out (Thursday in Florida and Saturday at Ottawa). The disappointment will be tough to push aside.

There was already very little evidence of a pulse left in the dressing room here in Tampa. Ondrej Palat, who is having a surprising rookie season for the Lightning, scored twice during the second period to run his total to 22. Soon the Czech forward will get his first taste of NHL playoff action.

The same can’t be said for the Leafs, who entered this season with high hopes but met an all-too familiar fate.