Maple Leafs’ Mike Babcock facing lots of questions after another early exit

Tuukka Rask made 32 saves as the Boston Bruins hammered the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 in Game 7.

BOSTON – After watching his players get booted in the opening round for a fifth straight time, and third overseeing the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock must have felt the daggers raising from the fists of a city that swore this time things would be different.

During his post-game presser, the head coach pointed fingers elsewhere.

Four times Babcock passive-aggressively blamed goaltender Frederik Andersen — arguably the club’s most valuable player through 88 games this season, but tragically leaky in the 89th — saying some variation of "They threw them at the net, they went in."

He directed fans’ attention over here, to Nazem Kadri and how the third-line centre’s reckless suspension (again) handcuffed his options and might have cost the team this series.

"It was unfortunate, the incident with Naz. Obviously, he wasn’t available. It was like an injured player in the playoffs, and we thought that was going to give us some depth and would have allowed us to move Willy [Nylander] around a bit, which we were never allowed to do," Babcock said. "As a management team, we’ll look at our group and see what we can do to get better."

The optimism was so much higher, the roster so much deeper walking into TD Garden this April, yet the result was infuriatingly, deflatingly familiar.

Another horror-show elimination game in the Maple Leafs’ own zone. Another argument for grizzled experience and character leadership over dangle-happy youth and skates a-flash. Another Game 7 victory for the Boston Bruins.

"It was right there for us: two games to try and eliminate them. It’s just a matter of getting that job done. Having that killer instinct," Patrick Marleau, 39, said. "It only works if you make right on it sooner than later. It’s hard. When you’re in a series, everything happens really quick. The ups and downs with a game, within a series, it’s a battle, but it’s also a great time of year and usually brings teams closer together."

Marleau hadn’t yet shaved off his salt-and-pepper playoff beard. The veteran who uprooted his four kids from sunny California because he thought Toronto could really do it looked drained, sad.

Sadder was that he looked more comfortable than his teammates addressing another season lost.

"It never gets easier," Marleau said of his 19th playoff exit. "The sting is still the same as always. Still looking for that first Stanley Cup, so…" And then he walked to bus.

The town that only knows winning did more of it, a feeling best encapsulated when, during a stoppage in play, New England’s Super Bowl MVP appeared on the Jumbotron hovering over centre ice and flushed an entire can of domestic brew down his gullet. Tastes like excellence.

"Julian Edelman chugging a beer was awesome," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said, minutes before giving his guys a day off to do same. "Probably got everyone fired up – including us."

For Toronto, this year was supposed to be different.

The giddiness of successfully wooing of John Tavares on Canada Day rippled through the streets and jacked the Vegas odds to a level of pre-season hype unseen for generations. The trade for Jake Muzzin — a Cup winner, who enjoys playing real defence — added to the momentum, as did career years by star players and seven Leafs hitting the 20-goal mark.

Confident as they were, the positive vibes inside the Leafs’ walls could never reach the loftiness of the expectations outside.

Which is why some infuriated fans didn’t wait for Patrice Bergeron’s empty-netter to start calling for Babcock’s head, Marleau’s retirement, or Jake Gardiner’s dismissal.

"Our series this year compared to last year, we were a way better hockey club," Babcock said. And he’s not wrong. "I’m proud of the guys. I thought we worked. I think we’re really taking steps and going in the right direction, but we’ve got to push through and get through this."

Not everyone, of course, is getting through this.

Poor Gardiner struggled again. It was his gaffe — a misread and poorly executed pass behind Andersen’s net — that led to Marcus Johansson’s unassisted game-winner in the first period.

"I was calling for it to go up the middle," Auston Matthews explained. "He thought I meant reverse. It was just a little miscommunication. It was a mistake on our part. That’s on both of us."

Gardiner, a minus-3 on this night, and is a career minus-10 in Game 7s in this cursed barn.

The defenceman didn’t wish to talk post-game this time. He will, in all likelihood, leave Toronto and all of these ghosts this summer.

"Nobody cares what anyone says. He’s a f—— really good player. We want him back next year, so that’s that," Morgan Rielly said.

The coach, too, came to the defender’s defence.

"He’s not mobile, it’s unfortunate, but he tried to give us what he could and tried to help us," Babcock said. "Any time you’re playing a guy that’s not 100 per cent, you think he’s better than the guys that are available that are 100 per cent. He did what he could and, in the end, it wasn’t enough to help us through this series. In saying that, no fault on his part."

Should Babcock have cut Gardiner’s minutes (17:17) in a bad game, then? Should he have played a healthy Calle Rosen or given Justin Holl more work during some of the season’s meaningless games so he’d be a more prepared option?

Did he lean on trusted, goal-less Marleau too much in this series, when the Fountain of Youth proved a myth?

"We felt Pat should be out there," Babcock said.

Should Babcock make more use of his backup in-season? Did Andersen hit a wall after his third straight 60-start campaign?

Well, it was interesting to hear Cassidy, unprompted, bring up the fact Bruins starter Tuukka Rask only got 45 starts this year (22nd-most in NHL) and wonder if the benefits of load management are paying off.

"Tonight, hopefully, we got some residual effect of that, where he was fresh the last couple games," Cassidy said.

And why were the special teams left unfixed?

The questions, the scrutiny, the minutia, all of it will hover over Babcock until October, if not beyond.

Again, the Leafs are done playing hockey before the Marlies. Attention shifts to the future, because the past is agony.

"In the off-season, there’s always transactions. People leave," Babcock said. "Part of the scars and the pain you feel in building a franchise. Disappointing today."

Down the hall, Brad Marchand, victorious again, walked through the home team’s dressing room and raised a hand to his ear.

"How quiet’s Toronto right now?" he said.

Well, not as quiet as you might think, Brad.

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