By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Toronto fans filled the Air Canada Centre ready to celebrate their team clinching an NHL playoff spot for the first time in nearly a decade on Thursday but the Maple Leafs' 5-3 loss to the visiting Islanders left many poised to push the panic button.
The Leafs are clinging to fifth place in the Eastern Conference on 53 points but their grip on a playoff 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 playoff spot," Leafs defenseman Cody Franson told reporters.
"We don't work that way, we work one day at a time."
Toronto have not reached the playoffs since 2004 and own the longest playoff drought of teams in the NHL today, while the surging Islanders, who have not reached the playoffs 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 playoff 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 honors 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."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)