- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

TORONTO (AP) - The Detroit Red Wings have stayed in the hunt in the Eastern Conference playoff race despite injuries to key players.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are headed in the opposite direction.

Darren Helm had a hat trick and the Red Wings handed the Maple Leafs their eighth straight loss with a 4-2 victory on Saturday night.

“It was the first hat trick I ever had, which is pretty special,” Helm said. “Big game to win, too. I was happy to win the game, first off, but the hat trick is a nice thing to take home.”

The losses are starting to wear on the Maple Leafs.

“I can’t describe it right now,” winger Joffrey Lupul said. “This was as close to a do-or-die as you can get. But obviously we’re not going to throw out hope until it’s mathematically set in stone. But we pretty much had to have this game.”

This was the first time in franchise history that Toronto went eight straight games without a point since 1996 and the first time it lost eight consecutive in regulation since 1985.

On the other hand, Detroit has picked up 11 points and gone on an impressive run without star forward Pavel Datsyuk and captain Henrik Zetterberg.

The injuries have piled up, but the Red Wings have gotten 21 goals in 26 games from Gustav Nyquist and continued solid performances from goalie Jimmy Howard (25 saves) to remain in the playoff race.

“We’ve been devastated this year, no question about it, but we found all these kids and we’re better for it going ahead, so that’s a positive thing,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said.

“We’ve had a lot of fun doing it. We’ve been in the grinder since day one, there’s no question about it, but we’ve had a lot of fun doing it and we’ve got a big game against Tampa tomorrow.”

Entering the day, seven losses piled up and yet the Leafs still sounded like a team that had hope. Giving up huge leads in the standings to the Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals to fall into a four-way tie at 80 points was one thing.

Squandering the most important game of this stretch so far to a fellow Eastern Conference wild-card competitor felt like the breaking point.

“This loss is the most disappointing out of the eight. There’s no hiding that,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We come tonight against a team that was battling for that same spot and they win this hockey game. This is the toughest loss for sure.”

The Red Wings weren’t the only ones in the race to win Saturday night, as the Blue Jackets beat the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime to take over the top wild-card spot in the East at 82 points. Columbus leads Detroit because it has more regulation and overtime wins.

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