TORONTO — One year ago, when his Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves on the wrong end of a Game 7 loss, their first-round bid brought to an inglorious end, “frustrated and devastated” was how Auston Matthews described where his mind was at.
Saturday night, standing in the bowels of Scotiabank Arena, a navy ball cap pulled low over his eyes, the young Leaf looked every bit a man just served an even more agonizing dose of both.
“It’s a game of inches,” Matthews said, hair still soaked from a hard-fought Game 7 loss to the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. “Unfortunately we’re on the bad side of things tonight. It’s really frustrating. It’s really disappointing. But I thought every guy in there competed and gave it their all.
“Ultimately, they made one more play than us, and they were able to win the game.”
In a series that’s swung like a pendulum between two teams with enough offensive acumen to run scores up, the finale took that wide-open back-and-forth and caught it in a vice grip, the clubs grinding through a nail-biter that wound up a 2-1 Bolts win.
Three times during his post-game post-mortem, Matthews mentioned that tough reality, the fact of it sure to stick in his mind for the months and weeks ahead: “It’s a game of inches.” A game of plays breaking just a breath’s worth this way or that, a puck falling just within reach, or rolling just past.
It’s the fact that it all felt so attainable, so easy to possibly grasp, that will make this loss the toughest one to stomach for these Leafs. And that this club fell to a team many had pegged as the eventual winner, a team that no one has bested in the post-season in more than two years, doesn’t lessen the sting — it only makes it sharper.
“It’s the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions right there. That’s a team that’s been through a lot as well — they’ve been through a lot of tough losses, heartbreak, and they’ve climbed their way to the top two years in a row now. We’re right there,” Matthews said, his voice breaking up on those final words. “We’re right there.”
His captain echoed the sentiment.
“It’s a tight hockey game. We just didn’t make one more play,” John Tavares said of Saturday’s finale. “Guys competed. It’s just, it’s hard to explain. It’s obviously frustrating. Hard to fathom. Especially the opportunities we had these last two games.”
When Tavares, Matthews, and the rest of their group do finally wash away the agony of this moment, when they reconvene to dissect how it all went wrong, again, and where they could’ve pushed just that little bit more to break the defending champs, one missed opportunity will loom large.
After the early days of this series saw special-teams play leading the discussion game after game, it was there in that same pocket of the on-ice chaos that Toronto let this one slip away. On three different occasions Saturday night, the Maple Leafs sent their star-studded top power-play unit over the boards — the one that dominated for the majority of the 82-game run-up to these playoffs, the one that finished the year as the most prolific in the game, the one that features the most prolific goal-scorer in the game.
And three times, they came back to the bench empty-handed, those illuminated numbers up on the scoreboard unchanged.
The chances started early. When the score was still knotted at 0-0 in the first period, it was Toronto who was gifted the first call in a game that saw the officials keep the whistles tucked away for the majority of the night. They couldn’t break through. Instead, it was the Bolts who shifted the scoreboard first, Nick Paul scoring the first playoff goal of his career near the end of that opening period.
The very next shift, Toronto earned another kick at the man-advantage can, a gift of a chance for a quick response before the first period was in the books. Again, they were held at bay. And after an intermission to catch their breath, to plot and scheme, Sheldon Keefe’s squad opened the next period with the final 35 seconds of that power-play time to work with. But the Bolts didn’t budge.
The opportunities kept coming. Early in the third, with Toronto trailing 2-1, with the game devolving into a stalemate, neither team giving up an inch, another golden one fell their way. Another chance for the home side to sidestep the deadlock and flex their creative muscle, to shove a foot in the door that had just barely squeaked open, and maybe just kick it in.
Boil down every practice from October to Saturday morning, every session in the video room, every rehearsal in regular-season games getting this team prepped for the real thing — it all came down to that moment. Five on four, one shot away, the season on the line.
Still, against the Maple Leafs’ best, the defending champs held the fort. The numbers looming above didn’t budge. And the night went to the visitors.
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
Go back to the film, and you’ll see Matthews and William Nylander firing shots from either side of the zone on that first man-advantage opportunity, Tavares nearly deflecting another one in front. You’ll see Marner setting up Michael Bunting and Ilya Mikheyev for a heart-stopper in the dying seconds of the period, on that second opportunity. You’ll see a flat-out onslaught on that all-important final go — a look from Matthews, a one-timer from Nylander, a scramble at the net front with Nos. 91 and 16 trying to jam it home, a shot from Morgan Rielly, trying to net his second of the game, and then more from Nylander, more from T.J. Brodie, more from Mikheyev.
Jon Cooper’s veterans — the one standing tall in the cage, specifically — met the moment, and held on just enough.
It’s a game of inches.
“We had looks. We had chances,” Marner said at the end of the night, looking just as broken up and dejected as his linemate. “It didn’t go in. It’s just disappointing.”
It’s because of how those opportunities shook out that navigating where exactly these Maple Leafs go from here will be no simple task. You can look at the year-after-year rollover of heartbreak, and the salary-cap pileup of Toronto’s high-flying core. You can look at those three golden chances that brought all of them over the boards together in the most important game of the season, that didn’t bear fruit.
But if you look closely enough you’ll see that, unlike years past, this time the leaders led.
Matthews started as a force in Game 1, and fought till the end in Game 7. Tavares and Nylander came alive when their team needed them most, in the toughest stretches of this series. Rielly tallied his side’s only goal on the night their season ended. And it was Marner, from opening puck-drop to the final whistle, that continued to put his team in position to get that bounce they craved, his effortless weaving through Bolts bodies drawing the latter two calls that put Toronto on the power play, and allowing them to infiltrate Tampa’s zone to get their chances, over and over and over again.
“Sometimes it’s just timing,” Tavares said, trying to make sense of it himself. “Making the key play at the right time. And we did that at a lot of points. Our opportunities in Game 6, a lot of looks. Tonight, tied it up, and we’re right there. Had looks in the third. They blocked a lot of shots — it was obviously hard to get to the net, and we had to find a way.
“You see why they’ve won, and done what they’ve done.”
In the end, that was the difference. In this game of inches, that was the final inch. Championship pedigree, championship mindsets. That uncanny, intangible ability to collectively navigate the moment, such that it falls your way, just slightly.
“It’s just not easy at this time of year,” Steven Stamkos, captain of the winners, said after closing this seven-game chapter back in his hometown.
"That was one of the toughest series we've played. They've got the star players, they've got the goaltender, they've got some solid defencemen. I mean, you go down the list, they have everything. It’s just, we believed in ourselves, too.”