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There was a lot at stake last night, with two game sevens on the docket, and several second round berths still up for grabs. With four teams already securing spots in the conference semi-finals, the anticipation leading into last night’s game was even greater because of the uncertainty.

The Vancouver Canucks came to play in Game 7. Alex Burrows scored early inthe first period to give the Canucks an early one goal lead, which they held well into the third period. Two players on particular – Robero Luongo and Ryan Kesler competed hard and both had strong performances. Kesler was all over the ice and getting to the dirty areas to generate scoring chances. Although he wasn’t as flashy as goaltending counterpart Corey Crawford, Luongo was poised between the pipes and avoided his trend of crumbling under pressure. Unlike the previous three games of the series (all Vancouver losses), the Canucks managed to bring a physical element to the game, out hitting the Blackhawks 37-14 midway through the third.

After last night’s outcome, the second round of the Western Conference playoff picture has been determined. The Eastern Conference wraps up tonight, with Game 7 of the Boston/Montreal and Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay series.

What are your thoughts on the matchups on the West and who which teams will win tonight in the East?

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After watching the playoffs from the sidelines for the past few seasons, the Lightning have made the most of their first post season appearance since 2007. Tampa Bay looked shaky in the first two games of the series, but has settled into the series and have given the Penguins all they can handle.

Head coach Guy Boucher, one of the most promising young coaches in recent memory, has had a calming influence on his team. He has prepared his team to overcome back-to-back elimination games and fought back to tie the series at three games apiece. Led by Steve Downie’s game winner and a series of terrific saves from veteran backstopper Dwayne Rolson, the Lighting earned a 4-2 win to force game 7.

With all of their momentum of their side, Tampa looks to secure a spot in the second round when they visit the Pens in a do-or die situation on Wednesday.

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I hate to direct traffic towards Glenn Healy’s employer but there has been an MLHS Playoff Pick ‘em Pool set up over at CBC Sports. Register for an account, locate the league entitled “Maple Leafs Hotstove” and fill in the password “MLHS” to enter. From there, you pick six forwards (three from each conference), four defencemen (two from each conference) and two goaltenders (one from each conference) while staying within the 30 point “player value” limit. CBC has a grand prize of a KIA Optimus Turbo up for grabs but given I’ll be driving that home MLHS is offering up a prize of its own. The winner of the Maple Leafs Hotstove pool will receive a Pucking Hilarious t-shirt of their choice. Toss your pool picks and playoff predictions in the comments section. The final first round playoff matchups for your referral:

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Photo Credit: Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images

It was far from a satisfying send off but last night’s 4-1 loss to the Habs was in some ways a microcosm of 2010-11 season that was. With their powerplay quite literally working against them, the Leafs put themselves in a hole early, showed some fight back and ultimately fell short, while some promising youthful performances comprised a silver lining for a better tomorrow. That said, it seemed a good portion of the Leafs roster was still suffering from the hangover of a playoff run fallen short, the giveaways and breakaways against were plentiful and the effort generally uninspired.

It’s important to keep one game in perspective but debutants Frattin and Colborne gave Leafs fans a pretty good feel for what the future may hold last night. Colborne’s frame will need some further filling out but he looked like an unrefined model of that big-bodied skilled center fans have been yearning for since Mats Sundin’s departure. Matt Frattin showed no hesitation in getting right in the mix with a high-tempo game and some good offensive instincts in finding the good scoring areas, registering five shots in 15 minutes of icetime. Frattin would have notched his first NHL goal if not for a couple good saves from Carey Price.

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Photo Credit: MapleLeafs.com

The Leafs second half surge was in large part  the result of unexpected play from several Toronto Marlie callups in James Reimer, Keith Aulie, Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb. Looking to take his first step towards graduation, Joe Colborne has been recalled from the farm while he was in the midst of an impressive 18-game stint with the Marlies, scoring eight goals and adding seven assists. If Colborne manages to perform half as good as he did in his debut with the Marlies – a two-goal performance – the Leafs would be ecstatic. Expectations in check, it’s a one-game wetting of the feet that we shouldn’t read too far into either way.

Same goes for 23-year old college senior Matt Frattin, who signed a two-year entry level contract with the Leafs on Friday and will join Colborne in making his Leafs and NHL debut. The product of North Dakota won’t play a top six role, but will form an intriguing third line alongside Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri.

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Photo Credit: The Canadian Press via Marlies.ca

It was a relatively uneventful off day for the Leafs, with the only noteworthy news being the report from AM640 that J.S. Giguere will undergo a sports hernia surgery this summer. The team is back on the ice today to prepare for tomorrow’s game when they play host to the Montreal Canadiens. Just like the Leafs final game one year ago, they will be playing for pride and would like nothing more than to finish off their season series with Montreal by defeating their original six rivals in front of the hometown fans at the Air Canada Centre.

There are only ten returning Leaf players from the team that defeated Montreal 4-3 in overtime on April 10th of last year. Among those players includes a strong trio of defenseman in Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek. Up front, Tyler Bozak, Tim Brent, Mikhail Grabovski, Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin and Fredrik Sjostrom were all members of last year’s team. One key player in last season’s finale against the Canadiens was Christian Hanson, who scored two goals and added an assist in the win. Fellow Marlies teammate and recently acquired centre Joe Colborne is expected to be recalled by the Leafs prior to the game, so he can get a taste of NHL action before heading into the off season.

Colborne has had an impressive stint since joining the Marlies, exhibiting a real scoring touch with eight goals, seven assists and 15 points in 19 games. If Leafs brass decides to bring him up, he could be sampled in various spots in the lineup, perhaps spending some time centering Kessel or Marlie teammate Nazem Kadri. It should be a nice taste of NHL action at the very least and at most his first step in making the case for full-time NHL duty as early as this fall.

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Photo Credit: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images

Despite a late third period rally with quick goals by Phil Kessel and linemate Tyler Bozak, the Leafs weren’t able to mount a comeback over the Devils in their final road game of the season. The Leafs looked a team understandably disheartened by the realization they were no longer playing meaningful hockey. Hopefully the final game against an arch rival on Saturday provides a better send off in front of the home crowd.

James Reimer had a strong start to the night, with several impressive stops through the opening frame, but appeared to show signs of fatigue after surrendering three straight goals, including a snipe by Ilya Kovalchuk on the powerplay. Reimer was replaced by Giguere to open the third period, who fared much better in his first appearance in several weeks.

As the Leafs prepare for their final game of the regular season on Saturday against Montreal, Ron Wilson and the rest of the coaching staff will evaluate the roster and likely recall a forward from the Toronto Marlies. All signs point to Joe Colborne, who was expected to replace Armstrong in the lineup after he went down to injury, but was sidelined with a head injury of his own. It will be an excellent stage to audition for a full time spot on the Leafs next season.

The Marlies will get a new arrival of their own in near-50-goal-man Greg McKegg after the elimination of his Erie Otters from the OHL playoffs was followed quickly by a three year entry level contract with the Maple Leafs. McKegg is eligible to play out the season in the AHL given his junior season is finished but as an 18-year-old he cannot play there until the same juncture next season.

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Photo Credit: Luis M. Alvarez/AP Photo

Well, the luck continued yesterday for the Blue and White. With their monumental collapse in the playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers last season still fresh in the minds of the Boston faithful, the Bruins once again committed a major defensive lapse by surrendering five unanswered goals to the Rangers yesterday and putting the post season further out of reach for the Leafs. Hopefully the hockey gods have the decency to balance out the Leafs’ misfortunes eventually because we haven’t seen much fall their way since the lockout.

At the end of the day, the Leafs playoff aspirations rely solely on their performance throughout the entire season. While a late stretch created excitement for the city of Toronto, this team must get over the hump and learn to win on a consistent basis without that major, season-killing slump that has had them fighting such a deficit the past few seasons. All Leaf fans can ask for is an honest effort and demand no excuses for mid-season mediocrity. It has been well-documented that the Leafs have put together one of the best records in the NHL since the All Star break. None of that matters if the team is one of the worst through October and November.

With three important games left on the schedule, starting with tonight`s game against Washington, the Leafs will look to finish the year strong to leave no doubts that they finally jumped over the hump. Although the playoffs are still a mathematical possibility, the Buffalo Sabres must lose the rest of their games in regulation while the Leafs need to go three straight in either regulation or overtime. If the Sabres manage to record a point, Toronto will be officially, mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Hey, stranger things have happened, right? I think?

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Photo Credit: Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

The Flyers – Rangers game is available on TSN. 12:30 p.m. start. Carolina – Buffalo face off at 5 p.m., check back for a stream link.

On the eve of the Leafs meeting with the Ottawa Senators, James Reimer was named the NHL’s top rookie for the month of March in what has been a whirlwind season for the recently turned 23-year old goaltender. After making his first career start on January 1st against the Senators in Ottawa, Reimer returned yesterday in hopes of recording his 20th win of the season in only his 34th career game. Not bad for a former fourth round pick who began the season as a Toronto Marlie.

With an impressive 20-8-4 record, including a 2.54 goals against average and 0.922 save percentage, Reimer has earned his stay as a starting NHL goaltender. Not only is he capable of playing in the pressure packed market in Toronto, but he is embracing the spotlight with his calm and collected attitude. Again last night Reimer made the saves that mattered and showed no signs of being fazed after a quickfire double from Ottawa Senators erased a 2-0 lead.

Barring a meltdown from either the eighth place New York Rangers or ninth place Carolina Hurricanes, the Leafs will finish out of the post season for a sixth consecutive season. Despite that likely result, there is a long list of reasons why this team has what it takes to ride back to the glory land next year.

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Photo Credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

It appeared as though the Leafs received a lucky break when the Sabres announced that Ryan Miller was listed as day-to-day with an upper body injury as a result of being hit in the chest by a Dion Phaneuf slapshot on Tuesday. As Leafs fans, we should know better by now. With Miller out, the Sabres started a relatively unproven and undersized goalie in Jhonas Enroth, who had only appeared in nine NHL games prior to starting last night. He made 23 saves to earn the victory and his first career shutout. Buffalo’s win puts the Leafs seven points out of the eighth and final playoff spot with only five games remaining.

Toronto is back in action tonight against their division rival Boston Bruins, who have struggled against the Leafs this season, winning only two of the five previous matchups. However, the Bruins enter the game on a hot streak, winning three straight, their latest a 3-0 shutout performance over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday.

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Photo Credit: Mike Cassese/REUTERS

The Maple Leafs earned an uplifting 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres last night to a thunderous ovation from the ACC faithful. While the Leafs live to fight another day, the odds are still heavily stacked against their favour and they will have to hope the Sabres begin to wilt underneath the added pressure starting tonight against the Rangers.

Led by a three-point performance from Clarke MacArthur, Nazem Kadri’s best game in a Leaf uniform and an energized Dion Phaneuf, the blue and white dropped the Sabres for the third consecutive time in the span of about a month. While the Sabres are still five points ahead of the Leafs with a game in hand, admirably this Leafs hasn’t seemed to have gotten the memo about their season being over, and do maintain a slim chance of crawling back into the top-eight of the Eastern Conference if they can start getting a few favours.

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(Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press)

The Maple Leafs visit the Joe Louis Arena in the only meeting of the season against an original six rival in the Detroit Red Wings. Coming off their third-straight win after a victory in Colorado on Thursday, tonight’s game is the next step in the attempt to more or less run the board and climb into the top-eight of the Eastern Conference. Despite being second in the West, the Red Wings have struggled in the month of March, going 4-4-3 in their last 11, including two losses in regulation and an overtime loss, in their last three games.

Toronto is looking to capitalize on the Red Wings glut of injuries. Detroit will be without leading offensive forwards Pavel Datsyuk (lower body), Todd Bertuzzi (back) and Johan Franzen (groin). With a 16-7-4 overall record and a 12-3-1 road record when James Reimer is between the pipes, the Leafs have been one of the top three teams since the all star break, behind only the San Jose Sharks and New Jersey Devils. In order to prove up to making the playoffs, let alone to competing in them, Toronto needs to be able to beat the best. Let’s hope the continued lack of outside help hasn’t taken some of the wind out of the Leafs’ collective sail, as the state of Florida failed the Leafs last night with Carolina and Buffalo wins over Tampa Bay and the Panthers.

Follow the jump for today’s Leaf Links.

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With a 4-3 win over the Colorado Avalanche last night, the Leafs have moved into a tie with the Carolina Hurricanes for ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 78 points, putting them three back of the Buffalo Sabres, who sit in eighth with two games in hand. Based on the past few seasons, the minimum number of points needed to qualify for the playoffs falls between 90 and 92 points. In order to reach that mark, the Leafs must win at least six of their final seven games. The goal heading into this west coast road trip was to collect four out of a possible six points, which has already been accomplished, so earning at least one point in Detroit on Saturday will be a major bonus for the team.

James Reimer is clearly the engine that drives the Leafs’ success, however there is one player in particular who hasn’t garnered nearly the amount of attention that he deserves based on his play this season. With spotlight shining on Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and of course Phil Kessel, there has been less talk of Nikolai Kulemin and his under the radar performance. With two goals last night, he has moved within two tallies of the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career. The 25-year old forward has not only set a career high in goals (28), assists (26) and overall points (54), but he has also been one of the team’s best penalty killers.

Check out your Leafs Links after the jump.