BOSTON — All that promised pain, Jake Gardiner wore it on his face.
It crept into his voice and slunk his shoulders.
“Personally, I got to be better. A lot of this game is on me,” said Gardiner, the posterboy defenceman for risk-reward.
Gardiner’s voice quavered. Tears coated his eyes. He exhaled deeply.
“It’s just not good enough, especially in a game like this. It’s the most important game of the season, and I didn’t show up, so… there’s not much you can say really.”
In the fury and dismay of another third-period Game 7 collapse on Boston ice, Toronto Maple Leafs fans may lay this 7-4 rubble at the feet of Gardiner, or goalie Frederik Andersen (.829 save percentage in this one), or Auston Matthews (two points all series), or Mike Babcock’s deployment, or Lou Lamoriello’s decision to sit tight at the trade deadline, or Nazem Kadri’s brutal timing to earn a suspension.
But to blow it against an excellent team is a group failure, just as rallying from a 1-3 series deficit to seize a 4-3 third-period lead in Game 7 was a team effort.
“At the start of the series, if you’d have told we were playing Boston and it’d be like this and we’d be right here going into the third period, I would’ve taken that all day long,” Babcock said.
“The best way to fix things is take total responsibility yourself.”
To his credit, Gardiner did so with raw honesty.
Through a scrum and lump, he swallowed ownership of the most gut-wrenching loss of his life, and that includes his minus-two performance in the 2013 debacle you neither need nor want us to rehash.
Gardiner was a dash-five. He had two giveaways. He fumbled the puck frequently and compounded his poor decisions. His passes refused to stretch, and when they did, it was for icings. When Babcock tapped No. 51 on the shoulder, 61 per cent of the shot attempts were being blasted at the visitors’ end.
“There’s no real explanation,” Gardiner said. “I felt fine. It just seemed like everything I was doing ended up in the back of the net.”
The ultimate turning point in a contest that featured at least seven of them featured Gardiner turning the wrong way on a brilliant burst by Bruins super rookie Jake DeBrusk.
“I saw he had a lot of speed. I didn’t think I could’ve kept him in front of me, so I turned, skated with him,” said Gardiner, who tried to throw a body check as DeBrusk angled to the crease. “He made a good play. I gotta get a stick on it, though.”
He didn’t. Neither did Andersen, who let the game-winner slip five-hole. DeBrusk said he caught Gardiner off-guard. The highlight was too ugly or too heartbreaking for Babcock to re-watch.
“We’ll have lots of time to look at those goals,” the coach said.
As wonderful a talent as Gardiner is—he racked up a career-best 52 points this season—and as gracious as he is under all circumstances, the cold truth is he might have just played his last night for the Maple Leafs.
“Hockey’s a fast game,” Kadri reminded. “Sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to think about or process a lot of the things that happen. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand: Things happen in a blink of an eye. You go back and say, ‘Oh, I should’ve done this. I should’ve done that.’ But in the moment, it’s tough.”
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Constructed as is, the Maple Leafs defence is not good enough.
Toronto allowed an average of four goals per game in this series, despite a couple of headstands and cartwheels by Andersen. They surrendered 35 shots a night. They gave the puck away a playoff-worst 79 times. For long stretches, proper zone clears felt like mini triumphs.
“Bottom line, we gave up six before the goalie got pulled. That’s a lot,” said Ron Hainsey. “We just could not hold the leads. We had three of them.”
We lobbed a loaded question at Kadri: Is this group good enough defensively to win a Cup?
“There’s no doubt about that. Absolutely,” he replied. “Do we need some work and some tweaking? Of course.”
Gardiner’s contract is one of the last vestiges of the Dave Nonis regime. It carries a $4.05-million cap hit for next season, and then he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
With a strong possibility of all six UFAs—James van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Tomas Plekanec, Dominic Moore, Tyler Bozak, and Roman Polak—walking this summer, Toronto’s roster is ready for a wave of turnover around the edges. (Heck, after this series, maybe Polak has the best chance to re-sign — one year, league minimum, anyone?)
Trading Gardiner would cut to the core, but the market for an underpriced 52-point, 27-year-old puck-mover who can work a power play could be tempting enough to help the Leafs improve its centre depth and strength on the right side of the blue line.
Gardiner isn’t as much to blame as he thinks right now, but the rewards may never outweigh the risk.
At his lowest, Gardiner was asked how long it would take to get over the weight of this performance.
“I’m not sure on that one,” he mustered.
“It’s going to be a tough one to swallow, that’s for sure. I let a lot of people down. But you know what, hopefully I can come back better from it.”
He can, but for whom?