BOSTON — Joe Bowen, the longtime Toronto Maple Leafs broadcaster, stood in the exact same place he had 363 nights before and performed the same solemn ritual: A quick handshake for each player as he made a sharp right turn into the hallway at TD Garden and left another season behind.
There were few, if any, words spoken. It was quiet.
The entire thing played out like a funeral you’d already attended and that’s because most of us had. Boston has not been kind to the Leafs. This is where their hope comes to be buried.
"It sucks," said Mitch Marner. "We believed in this team, we had a lot of confidence in this team and the season ends early. It sucks. But it’s got to stay with us, we’ve got to be hungry for this next year and make sure we come back pissed off.
"Last year we had confidence as well, thought we could win. It’s the same s—– feeling as last year."
Only this Game 7 defeat was worse on just about every level.
The Leafs had backed up the Brink’s truck to sign John Tavares, traded a first-round pick and two prospects for Jake Muzzin, seen growth from every one of their young players and built what they believed to be a championship-calibre foundation.
Then they put the Boston Bruins on the ropes and didn’t finish the job.
"It’s sad to see it end the way it did," said Auston Matthews. "This is obviously a feeling that we’ve experienced two years in a row and it’s not a good feeling for any of us. So I think it’s something that we want to not really experience again."
At the happier end of the hallway, Brad Marchand was busy being Brad Marchand. He had smashed another stick to pieces as a sacrifice to the hockey gods before warmups and later strutted through the Bruins dressing room after the 5-1 win asking: "How quiet’s Toronto right now?"
Well, about that.
The Bruins may have silenced Maple Leaf Square on Tuesday night and sent the car flags back to the attic en masse, but Toronto? Quiet? Not this time.
The full-on autopsy is already underway and nothing is off-limits.
Questions about Mike Babcock’s player usage and lack of in-game adjustments. Nazem Kadri’s future after finishing this series with a five-game suspension. Patrick Marleau’s advancing age, declining production and a $6.25-million cap hit that extends through next season.
You see, the problem with Toronto’s improved performance against Boston is that none of the silver linings were bright enough to dull the reality of the situation: This is one year of potential Stanley Cup contention down and still no series won.
"I think we’re really taking steps and going in the right direction, but we’ve got to push through and get through this," said Babcock, who suddenly has half the city wondering about his bench management. "I mean, that’s just the bottom line."
In Game 7 specifically, they were hurt by a soft goal against Frederik Andersen to take the wind out of the sails after a strong start. They fell behind 2-0, saw Tavares get it back to 2-1, started building some pressure and then had another so-so shot get past Andersen early in the third period.
In the series as a whole, they were sunk by specialty teams. A brutal penalty kill that cost them a chance to close things out on home ice in Game 6. A power play that sputtered in the last couple games despite overflowing with talent.
The Leafs managed to contain Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak about as well as can be expected at even strength, but like the whack-a-mole game they saw a third-liner (Marcus Johansson) and two fourth-liners (Sean Kuraly and Joakim Nordstrom) do the damage on Tuesday.
"They made good on their chances," said Marleau.
Who knows what difference Kadri could have made had he not cross-checked Jake Debrusk in the head late in Game 2? The Leafs’ centre depth was supposed to be its biggest strength this season and so it was surprising to see Matthews, the hot hand, play just 18:48 in Game 7.
The reason why this was such a missed opportunity is that the Leafs lose one of their main advantages next season: cap space. Next year, Matthews makes $11.634-million against the cap and Marner, a pending restricted free agent, could hit eight figures as well.
It will not only be difficult to find the right number for Jake Gardiner, who gutted through this series with an injured back, and young wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, but it’s going to be nearly impossible to build as strong of a supporting cast while also improving the blue line.
Then you factor in Tampa’s shocking first-round loss and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ exit and a possible Washington Capitals ouster and, man, is this Stanley Cup tournament ever wide open. They could have dreamt of doing something special if they got past Boston. They played darn near well enough to pull it off.
"It was right there for us," said Marleau. "Two games to try to eliminate them, so it’s just a matter of getting that job done. Having that killer instinct, I think. We showed it at times.
"It’s hard to put a team away, but it’s another lesson learned and it only works if you make right on it, sooner than later."
There will only ever be so many chances.