For Maple Leafs core, sting of another missed opportunity may never disappear

Watch as we recap all 7 classic games as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens renew playoff hostilities 42 years later, and which the Habs make the improbable series comeback to silence the Buds and move on to Winnipeg.

TORONTO — There sat the NHL’s most dangerous goal-scorer some 30 minutes after the goals dried up in a playoff series he’s likely never going to shake from memory.

The Toronto Maple Leafs ballcap was pulled low over Auston Matthews’s eyes and his voice trailed off as he attempted to recount the scene in the dressing room following his team’s stunning elimination by the Montreal Canadiens.

“I mean there’s not really much to be said. I think, um …”

The interview then ended as abruptly as this once-promising season. It was unclear if Matthews was crying, but he was certainly growing emotional. And that was the only appropriate reaction after allowing this golden opportunity to pass.

The scene was so raw following a 3-1 loss in Game 7 that Sheldon Keefe elected not to address his players. He figured it was best to let the dust settle for a day or two before trying to salve the gaping wound.

It’s not just that they failed to eliminate an opponent who finished 18 points behind them in the regular season or fumbled away a 3-1 series stranglehold. They were one goal from advancing in two straight overtime periods and then completely whiffed Monday when presented with a chance to play the game of their lives -- a Game 7 Keefe believed could alter their destiny.

And yet there was something so familiar in the way they lost, playing timidly until a costly goaltending error forced them to respond. This time it was Jack Campbell, who had an otherwise stellar series, rather than Frederik Andersen. But goaltending wasn’t the real issue here.

Campbell fell on the sword after he was slow to react to Brendan Gallagher’s shot along the ice from distance, saying “the worst goal of my career happened in Game 7. It’s just unacceptable.”

While we’ll salute him for being a stand-up teammate, we won’t allow that to be recorded as the reason why this Leafs team has now tried and failed to win a playoff series for five consecutive years.

Think about it: They are loaded with high-end talent, basically the main ingredient missing from the Canadiens roster, and should be able to overcome one error per game. Yet just like in last year’s play-in series loss to Columbus that error proved to be fatal.

If you’re going to tie up half of your salary cap space in four forwards, you need to overwhelm opponents with that skill. You must dictate the terms. Playing safely isn’t a sound strategy.

This is why Sheldon Keefe’s performance in this series merits the same scrutiny as Marner and Matthews. The Big Two produced one goal against Carey Price and were key cogs of a power play that went 12-for-110 from March 1 onwards. They played essentially every 5-on-5 shift together and became major defensive targets after John Tavares was knocked out of the series with a concussion and knee injury.

“I had a lot of looks. I had a lot of nets that were empty that I just didn’t put into,” said Marner. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best player every single night. I felt that I wasn’t living up to my own standards and I’ve just got to make sure that it stops happening.”

He shoulders major responsibility for another missed shot, as does Matthews, who led all players in the series with 34 shots on goal. They are still just 23 and 24, still with prime years ahead but also with a clock ticking.

They were supposed to have developed the necessary scar tissue from the losses to the Capitals, Bruins and Blue Jackets but still they scratch. Marner had 17 shots in the seven-game series and is riding an 18-game playoff streak without a goal. Matthews scored just once in the seven-game loss to the Habs.

Still they hit a goal post during Game 7 and got nine shot attempts from linemate Zach Hyman.

“I didn't think they cheated or their habits or anything like that changed,” said Keefe. “Those guys want to win as much or more than any other guy we have and they're as hard on themselves as anyone. They know the responsibility that they have to the team, but I didn't see any sign of frustration, both in watching them on the bench, talking with them before, during and after games.

“It just didn't go their way and the chances that they had and a night like tonight our entire team struggled to generate much.”

So much seemed to be lined up in Toronto’s favour during this pandemic season, starting with a realigned North Division it dominated. The Leafs went all-in, too, surrendering six draft picks to acquire Nick Foligno, Riley Nash, Ben Hutton and David Rittich at the trade deadline for depth.

That was after T.J. Brodie, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian were added in the off-season.

It’s why this series and the three straight losses to finish it won’t be easily forgotten. With due respect to the Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets, the path to the third round was clear and players like William Nylander (eight points), Alex Kerfoot (six points) and Jason Spezza (five points) provided big secondary contributions.

Matthews had five points and Marner four after a regular season where they each were top-five scorers in the entire league. This group appeared to take all the necessary steps until it got back in a situation to clinch a playoff series and couldn’t meet the moment.

That’s why the sting of this loss may never completely disappear.

Even the long hockey careers are short and the good omens were all there. Tavares was skating towards his eventual return, a small number of double-vaccinated healthcare workers were permitted back inside the lower bowl at Scotiabank Arena on Monday night and the chance to eliminate the Canadiens offered potential catharsis after years of frustration.

“Obviously it’s as hard as it gets,” said Morgan Rielly, who respectfully batted away the suggestion that this playoff loss could be tied to those that came before it.

“The goals are higher than what we achieved this year and it makes the disappointment much worse. We feel it and we realize that we let an opportunity slip and that’s not acceptable by our standards.

“It makes that loss a lot worse than anything we had to deal with before.”

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