Ice Hockey - Party on hold as Leafs fail to clinch play-off spot

Toronto fans filled the Air Canada Centre ready to celebrate their team clinching an NHL play-off spot for the first time in nearly a decade but the Maple Leafs' 5-3 loss to the visiting Islanders left many poised to push the panic button.

Ice Hockey - Party on hold as Leafs fail to clinch play-off spot

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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle gestures as his team plays the New York Islanders (Reuters)

The Leafs are clinging to fifth place in the Eastern Conference on 53 points but their grip on a play-off spot is starting to slip.

Four chasing teams - the Ottawa Senators (52 points), New York Islanders (51), New York Rangers (48) and Winnipeg Jets (48) - all made up ground with wins on Thursday, setting up a nail-biting finish to the regular season.

"We have to stop the bleeding and get back to what has made us successful but our lack of success the last couple of games has nothing to do with us thinking we have a play-off spot," Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said.

"We don't work that way, we work one day at a time."

Toronto have not reached the play-offs since 2004 and own the longest play-off drought of teams in the NHL today, while the surging Islanders, who have not reached the play-offs since 2007, took a step towards ending their own barren spell, moving to within a point of the Leafs.

Toronto, the only NHL franchise to have been valued at more than $1 billion by Forbes, are a massive success off the ice but for all their money cannot seem to buy a play-off spot.

When the Leafs last hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1967, the NHL was still a six-team league, players did not wear helmets and netminders had just discovered face masks.

With four games to play in the current regular season, Toronto's postseason destiny is in their own hands but long-suffering fans have learned to take nothing for granted.

While 'Leafs Nation' may be getting a case of the jitters, players say there is nothing to panic about.

"It's just the way it goes sometimes, I don't think there is any reason to be panicked about it," said Maple Leafs netminder James Reimer. "It's just a couple of tough breaks and that's it.

"You look at the big picture. We've played probably 40 good games out of 44 and that's a good average.

"You're going to have some tough games sometimes. Nothing to be concerned about we know we can do it."

The Islanders, who ranked near the bottom of Forbes evaluations at $155 million, are proving to be good value as they picked up their fifth win in six games with the help of two goals from John Tavares, leaving him in the fight for league scoring honours with 26 on the season.

"We scored on our first two shots and thought we were on our way then we stopped," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. "It's back to the drawing board. The sun is going to come up tomorrow.

"We all hope anyway."

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Rangers 6, Panthers 1

Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard scored twice and Henrik Lundqvist turned aside 34 shots as New York won their fourth straight home game and improved to 6-2-1 in their last nine contests.

Rick Nash had a goal and two assists and Brad Richards scored and set up a goal for the eighth-place Rangers, who remained three points behind the New York Islanders.

Rookie Jonathan Huberdeau scored his NHL rookie-leading 14th goal and Scott Clemmensen finished with 24 saves for the league-worst Panthers, who have dropped four straight and five of six.

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Senators 3, Capitals 1

Kyle Turris scored a pair of goals and hosts Ottawa snapped Washington's eight-game win streak.

Cory Conacher also scored and Craig Anderson turned aside 18 shots as the Senators won their fourth consecutive game to improve to 15-3-3 at home and pull within one point of fifth-place Toronto in the Eastern Conference.

Mike Ribeiro had the lone goal and Braden Holtby made 35 saves for the Capitals, who suffered their first regulation defeat in 11 games (9-1-1).

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Devils 3, Flyers 0

Martin Brodeur turned aside all 23 shots he faced for his 121st career shutout, and fourth-liner Ryan Carter scored early in the second period, as visiting New Jersey snapped a 10-game winless skid (0-6-4) to keep alive their flickering postseason hopes.

Matt D'Agostini tallied for the second time in four games and Adam Henrique added an empty-net goal for the Devils, who remained six points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers.

Ilya Bryzgalov finished with 28 saves for the Flyers, who are on the brink of elimination.

Philadelphia are seven points behind the Rangers with only four games remaining on their schedule.

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Canadiens 3, Lightning 2

Captain Brian Gionta scored his second goal of the game with 47 seconds remaining in the third period as Montreal edged visiting Tampa Bay.

With the Canadiens on the power play, Gionta went to the net and chipped in the rebound of defenseman Yannick Weber's shot that caromed off the back wall for the winning goal.

Rookie Alex Galchenyuk also scored and Carey Price made 32 saves for Montreal, who moved past idle Boston and into first place in the Northeast Division.

Rookie Richard Panik and captain Vincent Lecavalier scored and defenseman Victor Hedman added two assists for Tampa Bay, who were officially eliminated from playoff contention.

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Jets 4, Hurricanes 3 (overtime)

Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien fired a rebound past Justin Peters 1:23 into overtime as hosts Winnipeg blew a two-goal lead in the third period but recovered for their fifth straight win.

Blake Wheeler had a goal and two assists, defenseman Zach Bogosian added one of each and Paul Postma also scored for the Jets, who moved within two points of Washington for the Southeast Division lead.

Ondrej Pavelec made 24 saves, Peters stopped 27 shots in his fifth consecutive start.

Tuomo Ruutu scored twice and Alexander Semin tied the game for Carolina, who fell to 2-14-2 in their last 18 contests and finished 1-2-1 in four games against Winnipeg.

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Blues 2, Coyotes 1 (shootout)

Andy McDonald scored in the opening round of the shootout and Brian Elliott made 33 saves as St. Louis edged visiting Phoenix.

McDonald opened the shootout by beating Chad Johnson high to the blocker side and Elliott watched Antoine Vermette's attempt go wide before stopping Phoenix's next two shots as the Blues won their second straight game.

David Perron scored in the first period for St. Louis, who sit sixth in the Western Conference.

Radim Vrbata tied it late with a power-play goal and Johnson turned aside 29 shots for the Coyotes, who are five points behind eighth-place Columbus in the West.

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Stars 5, Canucks 1

Cody Eakin and Jamie Benn each recorded a goal and an assist as hosts Dallas posted their sixth win in seven games.

Vernon Fiddler, Ray Whitney and Erik Cole also scored while Kari Lehtonen made 37 saves in his return from injury for the Stars, who climbed within two points of Columbus for eighth place in the Western Conference.

Derek Roy scored against his former team and Cory Schneider stopped 25 shots for the Northwest Division-leading Canucks, who could have clinched a playoff spot with a victory.

Vancouver completed a 2-2-1 road trip and remained four points ahead of division rivals Minnesota.

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Sharks 6, Wild 1

Logan Couture scored a pair of goals and set up two others as hosts San Jose cruised past Minnesota.

Martin Havlat recorded two goals and an assist while Raffi Torres and Joe Pavelski both added one of each for the Sharks, who remained level on points with fourth-placed Los Angeles in the Western Conference.

Antti Niemi made 27 saves in his 22nd consecutive start for San Jose.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored the lone goal for Minnesota, who are a point behind sixth-placed St. Louis.

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Kings 2, Blue Jackets 1

Kyle Clifford scored at 13:32 of the second period to snap a tie - as well as his 16-game goalless drought - as hosts Los Angeles halted Columbus' five-game winning streak.

Defenseman Drew Doughty opened the scoring during a power play in the first period and Jonathan Quick made 20 saves for the Kings, who improved to 17-4-1 at home and held onto fourth place in the Western Conference.

Rookie defenseman Dalton Prout scored his first career goal for the Blue Jackets, who fell to 3-1-0 on their six-game road trip but remained in the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.

Los Angeles completed a sweep of their season series with Columbus for the first time in franchise history.

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