Despite Game 7 defeat, young Leafs’ ascension just getting started

Jake DeBrusk scored twice, including the game-winner, to get the Bruins a 7-4 win over the Maple Leafs in Game 7 and book their ticket to the next round against the Lightning.

BOSTON – There’s very little choice in a moment like this but to pick up and move on.

Amid the tears and frustration and disappointment swelling inside the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room on Wednesday night, there was also understanding. This series saw them fall on their faces early before rallying to push it to the limit. Game 7 saw them fly out of the gates and take a lead to the third period before crumpling under the weight of the relentless Boston Bruins attack.

There was no disputing that the Bruins were the better team in this best-of-seven. Toronto had its moments, and fought gamely, but it would have been an upset had they pulled it off.

They came close.

“The team is on its way up and competing with the top teams,” said veteran defenceman Ron Hainsey. “I think there’s still a level we can get to here, this group can get to. A little bit better. We showed some stuff coming back after a terrible first two games in here and we showed some good stuff to get back in the series to this point, but there’s a little bit higher notch you’ve got to [hit] – up and down the roster – in order to win a series like this.

“This is a top, whatever, three, four or five team, right? I mean we’re on the edge of that. But [Boston] was up there. From Nov. 1 on, their record is incredible.”

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The Leafs were no slouches with a 105-point season and a 4-3 lead over Boston at the second intermission of Game 7. They were 20 minutes from moving on to face Tampa. But the Bruins seized back control the way they had all series – controlling the puck in the offensive zone for long stretches and applying pressure.

Torey Krug’s tying goal came off an offensive zone faceoff win and a shot through traffic. Jake DeBrusk’s second of the night, the winner, arrived at the end of a powerful rush where he separated himself from Jake Gardiner and snuck a shot past Frederik Andersen.

They added two more goals for good measure and after the 7-4 loss Nazem Kadri didn’t hesitate when asked what lessons could be taken from these two weeks.

“To just keep applying that pressure,” he said. “It’s just a maturity thing and hockey is a game of momentum swings. You’ve got to be able to withstand them, especially on the road. Everything is not going to be pretty, but they were able to get to more pucks than us and put them on the net.”

Some of the Leafs were left raw. Gardiner had tears in his eyes while speaking with reporters and said that he’d let a lot of people down after being on the ice for five goals against in the decider. Andersen spoke in tones more hushed than usual after posting an .896 save percentage in the series.

There were a lot of long looks as players shuffled to the bus.

From Morgan Rielly, with his lip busted up after taking a Zdeno Chara shot to the face. From Auston Matthews, who fired a team-best 27 shots on goal but only beat Tuukka Rask once. From Connor Brown, who said only “tough one” while shaking broadcaster Joe Bowen’s hand in the hallway and walking off into the night.

“I’m not really commenting on anything. I didn’t go in like I normally do and go through the replays or that,” said coach Mike Babcock, letting his foot off the gas for the first time all season. “We’re done. So, we’ll have lots of time to look at those goals and get that figured out. The bottom line is we went out for the third period and they scored and we didn’t.

“Once they scored, they tilted the rink and I don’t even know how many looks we had if we had any.”

The Bruins tilted the ice from start to finish, controlling 52.3 per cent of even-strength shot attempts in the series. Where they really gained separation was in transition and the ability to break the puck cleanly out of their zone. That put it in the hands of the Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak line, which inflicted considerable damage.

It once again underscored the need for the Leafs to address their blue line. There will be considerable pressure on management to do that this summer. They simply don’t have a horse like Chara, who at age 41 logged 28:38 for Boston in Game 7.

The good news for Toronto is that Mitch Marner was a star in this series, scoring points in each of the last six games. Patrick Marleau proved that he can still play at a high level, which is essential given his $6.25-million cap hit the next two seasons. Speedy depth wingers Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen look ready for more important roles and will likely need to fill them with the expected departures of James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov in free agency (to say nothing of centre Tyler Bozak).

Any concerns about Matthews requires serious perspective. While he wasn’t as dominant as usual during this series, he forever appeared on the cusp of a breakthrough that didn’t come.

“Pavel [Datsyuk] was one of the best players I’ve ever coached, a two-way guy. I think he went four years without scoring a playoff goal,” said Babcock. “It’s hard, it’s real. These other teams are competing and they want to win too. I don’t think Bergeron and Marchand and Chara and these guys – they’re dialled in to play against you and, so, you’ve got to find a way to get to the next level.

“Some of these hard knocks are a growth opportunity for you in life because you’ve got to embrace it. You’ve got to dig in and you’ve got to grow your craft in the off-season.”

As much as this ending brought about flashbacks to the Game 7 meltdown in 2013, there really aren’t many parallels to draw.

The Leafs have spent four years, 11 months and 12 days tearing apart every aspect of their organization since then. They’ve changed a general manager and a coach and won the draft lottery while making several smart decisions to rebuild the roster.

Even though they ended up back where they started – with a blown lead in this building in a Game 7 – there’s nothing to suggest they’re headed backwards from this point forward. Heck, they might even watch the Bruins lift the Stanley Cup six weeks from now.

“They didn’t wilt at all,” said Hainsey. “Like a great team would, they kept coming back when we’d get the lead.”

As emotional as this loss was, the Leafs aren’t far off becoming a great team themselves. They’re an organization in transition that needs to keep plowing forward.

Here, tonight, it just wasn’t their time.

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