Johnston: Leafs abandoned fundamentals in loss

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara received only modest attention from Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf at the top of the crease in the third period - not enough, that's for sure. (CP/Frank Gunn)

Leave it to Joffrey Lupul to put the “Collapse on Causeway” into perspective.

The Toronto Maple Leafs forward woke up the morning after his team blew the biggest Game 7 third-period lead in NHL history and shared his feelings on Twitter:

“That hockey game will haunt me until the day I die,” Lupul wrote Tuesday.

Haunting is the only way to describe what went down at TD Garden. The kind of opportunity the Leafs squandered on Monday night does not come around very often.

There’s certainly no guarantee that they’ll get it again next year and a veteran like Lupul fully realizes that.

In today’s parity-filled NHL, all but the very cream of the crop need to scratch and claw just to qualify for the playoffs and then scratch and claw a whole lot more to reach the second round. Remember that the Florida Panthers were beaten in double overtime of Game 7 by New Jersey last spring and finished 30th overall this year.

A lot needs to go right for a team to have success.

Everything seemingly went wrong in the final 11 minutes of regulation and six-plus minutes of overtime for the Leafs. The biggest thing that stands out in rewatching the 5-4 overtime loss to Boston is how quickly the team abandoned fundamentals after going up 4-1.

Suddenly they couldn’t get the puck out. They got caught standing still on Nathan Horton’s goal to bring it back to 4-2. With so much of the play being carried in the defensive zone some of the shifts were ridiculously long.

“When you build a 4-1 lead you want to check, check, check, and as I said I thought we just ran out of gas as far as our group,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said.

“That should be a time where they don’t get much at all,” defenceman Cody Franson said. “We made mistakes that they capitalized on and that’s kind of the series in a nutshell.”

Even though things had started going badly midway through the third period, Toronto still found itself with a two-goal lead and the Bruins net empty with just 1:45 to play. And guess where the puck was?

In the Boston zone.

At that moment, they were 105 seconds and 200 feet of ice from the second round.

One more goal would certainly have ended it too. Matt Frattin fired wide after making a deke move on a breakaway with about 3:30 to play and a more aggressive forecheck once Tuukka Rask skated to the bench could have produced one as well.

The Bruins were a more confident team than most with a 6-on-5 advantage. They had worked extensively with assistant coach Geoff Ward on those situations in practice and scored with Rask out during a Game 6 loss at Air Canada Centre.

They would do it two more times in Game 7.

“We really felt like we had enough time to do it,” Bruins winger Brad Marchand said. “We moved the puck real well. We opened up a lot of plays by staying poised with the puck and knowing where guys were going to be around us.”

The first goal started when Milan Lucic beat Nikolai Kulemin with a nifty and potentially dangerous move in his own end and went barreling into the Leafs’ zone. Not long after, the big Bruins winger knocked home a rebound that James Reimer probably should have snared.

The mistakes were piling up even quicker than the tension for Toronto.

On the next shift, with Rask still on the bench, the Bruins sent out five forwards and six-foot-nine defenceman Zdeno Chara. Rather than go to his usual spot at the point, the lumbering blue-liner parked himself at the top of Reimer’s crease.

While there, he received only modest attention from Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf – not enough, that’s for sure – and Reimer had been forced deep into his net by the time a Patrice Bergeron point shot beat him through traffic.

“We just let them take over the game and climb out of a hole that they never should have come back from,” Phaneuf said.

The overtime unfolded in predictable fashion.

Toronto managed a couple good shifts early but was way back on its heels by the time Bergeron ended the Leafs season at 6:05.

The biggest issue came from the defence pairing of Jake Gardiner and Franson, who got caught on the ice for a shift lasting one minute 44 seconds because of the long change to the bench and the Leafs inability to clear the zone.

Legs heavy, they were desperate to do anything to get a change. Gardiner whacked at a loose puck in the goal mouth with Reimer down and it ended up right on Bergeron’s stick.

Game over.

“I didn’t see him coming back door like that,” Gardiner said. “I was just trying to clear it away as quick as I could.”

There will be plenty of time to wonder what could have been. For instance: Had Carlyle called a timeout at some point during the third period, could he have settled the players down?

Any given team with that lead would probably come out with a win 99 times out of 100.

Carlyle indicated that he and the coaching staff will start breaking down the Game 7 tape once the “emotions subside.” As for the players, some of whom might never don a Leafs sweater again, this will be an extremely difficult loss to move past.

Asked how long he expected it to sting, Gardiner replied: “That’s hard to stay, I haven’t been in this situation before. Probably awhile.”

Maybe even longer than that.

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