TORONTO – Better team. Better opponent. Same old devastating finish.
Sixth time’s the harm.
Through lumped throats and hushed voices, while shot-blocking tears and puck-battling pain, one by one the leaders of the Toronto Maple Leafs stood at that familiar podium and tried to describe the opening of an old wound that seared fresh again.
“Hard to fathom,” John Tavares said. “It stings. It hurts. Disappointing.... Such a fine line.”
Auston Matthews: “We’re right there.... We’re right there.”
Mitchell Marner: “We're getting sick and tired of feeling like this.”
GM Kyle Dubas — the architect of this fabulously talented offensive core forever stuck on three playoff wins — has often noted that success is seldom a straight line.
But on another night like this, with hung heads and sad handshakes, when these great players fall to a ridiculous 0-9 in chances to eliminate an opponent, success feels like a flatline.
“This one hurts more,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Lots of reasons to be proud, yet lots of reasons to be devastated and upset.
“We're a lot closer than it appears.”
The best version of these Toronto Maple Leafs is stuck with the same result.
They lost a 2-1 heartbreaker on home ice to the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday and once again saw their post-season end in seven games or less.
The difference between this edition, this defeat, is they showed up and threw everything they could muster at the two-time champions. To think, Toronto never trailed in the series until the final buzzer.
The flip side of that fact is the Leafs led the set 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2. Given three cracks, they never seized a stranglehold. They dug a ditch and skated, albeit valiantly, from behind in games 5, 6, and 7. Hardly a smart recipe against the best third-period closeout squad in the NHL.
Look no further than Tampa out-shot-blocking Toronto 26-13 in last-goal-wins Game 7.
The Lightning have been doing everything imaginable to hang on over the past 13 days. The Maple Leafs everything they can to bust through.
And now they’ll show up at training camp less scared but more scarred.
“The Leafs have a helluva team,” said Tampa’s Jon Cooper, who oversees one himself. “And they’ve been knocking at the door for so long. That's why such a big deal has been made about them not advancing in a series — because they are a really good team.
“I think they've grown as a group. I think their stars are stars. And they've got a really good team game and coach does a helluva job.”
Indeed, heads should be held high. Or higher, at least.
“They’ve got all the pieces,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “That’s one of the toughest series we’ve played.
“They have everything. It’s just, we have everything, too.”
For this era of Leafs, this sick-and-tired result — Round One and done — tastes familiarly awful.
Unlike series-deciders of the past, these Maple Leafs were fast, engaged and aggressive from the drop of the puck. They looked different. Crisper.
And their long-suffering fans, loud as ever, funneled that energy back. Even when Nick Paul — that former Ottawa Senator who had been snakebit for six games — opened the scoring by banging in a Ross Colton rebound off the rush.
Toronto’s Tavares appeared to tie the game 1-1 in the second period, but his clean shot was waved off due to a Justin Holl pick that gave the captain extra space in the slot.
Rush-jumping defenceman Morgan Rielly finally solved a dialed-in Andrei Vasilevskiy by finishing off a beautiful passing sequence by Marner and Matthews to knot the game for real.
“Both teams have knocked the other on the ass a little bit. Both teams have picked themselves up and continued to go at it,” Keefe said.
“We've been right there with the back-to-back champs, and our guys have grown a ton of confidence in knowing they belong in this moment.”
’Twas the Series of the Counterpunch.
The Team That Won't Die versus the Team That Can't Kill.
Naturally, Paul struck again, restoring the visitors’ lead with a determined deke through T.J. Brodie.
“It might not be the big guy. It might be somebody that you’ve never heard of doing something that takes us to the next level,” a prescient Corey Perry had said on Game 7 morning.
“These are where names are made. You show up for a Game 7, you’re going to be remembered.”
Toronto pushed, shot, got desperate, and came up empty again. The Leafs had no choice but to shake the hand, bend the knee, and tip the cap.
“How they defend as a team and how they prioritize defending and how they block shots and how they commit to give you nothing,” Keefe said. “That’s championship hockey.”
The 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs should be remembered as a group that charged the throne. One that took a step in maturity, aggression and confidence — if not in the bracket.
Tragically, for this starved city, they will also be remembered as yet another skilled bunch who, ultimately, failed to accomplish the thing when it mattered most.
One that must look a little different come training camp.
“We had a lot of respect in that line from that team, which is nice to see. It was a much different tone, much different feeling of respect from the other side than we experienced previously. We’re certainly earning respect,” Keefe said.
“But... we’re not in the respect game. We’re in the winning game.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Brayden Point fell awkwardly into the boards in the first period, twisting his right leg while outracing Mark Giordano to a puck. In terrible pain, the star forward immediately left the game. Point tried bravely to take a shift in Period 2 but could barely skate. Something to keep an eye on for the Battle of Florida.
• The Maple Leafs have scored zero power-play goals in their past seven games when attempting to clinch a playoff series. They had three opportunities to end that drought Saturday and came up empty.
• Matthews never registered more than five hits in a single regular-season game. He threw seven hits in Game 5, nine in Game 6, and six in Game 7. He left it on the line.
• A tidy bit of business by Julien BriseBois picking up rental Paul from the Senators for a fourth-round pick plus pending RFA Mathieu Joseph.
After 14 points in 21 regular-season games for the Bolts, Paul has been noticeable every night in his playoff debut. He had two even-strength assists and 10 shots prior to registering his first two career playoff goals, including the series-winner, Saturday.
• Vasilevskiy’s ridiculous streak of five consecutive shutouts in Tampa closeout games is over. With the series on the line, he was one save better than Campbell in Game 6 overtime and one save better in Game 7. That’s the difference.
Campbell’s series save percentage: .897.
Vasilevskiy’s series save percentage: .897.
"No goalie is immune to giving up goals. [The Rangers' Igor] Shesterkin is on the MVP ballot, and he's looked human some of these games," Cooper said.
"All I know about Vasi is, when the lights are shining the brightest, he seems to play his best.”