John Tavares could barely make eye contact as he listed his emotions. Austin Matthews’ head was also turned downward, and he spoke in hushed tones and in short sentences. Jason Spezza was spotted on the ice at the end of the game in tears.
That is the agony of defeat.
And it follows the Maple Leafs into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We’re getting tired of feeling this way,” said winger Mitch Marner. “This one is going to sting quite a bit.”
Another season of high expectations and great regular season performance ended in disappointment. Just when you thought they couldn’t lose another Game 7, this time not with the home crowd behind them, they did.
“Guys participated. It’s just hard to explain. It’s clearly frustrating. Hard to fathom,” Tavares said. “We have not achieved what we wanted to achieve. It stings. It hurts. It’s disappointing.”
The Maple Leafs continue to play with the emotions of their loyal following, come tantalizingly close to winning a round – albeit a touch of Stanley Cup playoff glory – and come up short.
On Saturday night, they delivered a much spicier performance than in other elimination games, but the Tampa Bay Lightning were just too much, earning a 2-1 win in the lowest scoring game of the series.
“It’s a game of centimeters. Unfortunately we were on the bad side tonight,” said Matthews. “It’s really frustrating. It’s really disappointing. Every man there joined in and gave everything. In the end, they played one more time than us and were able to win the game.”
It was Nick Paul—a trade-deadline and GTHL product acquisition, once traded for Spezza and attending the Leafs games with the Domi family—that brought in the Leafs. He scored both goals in the Lightning’s ninth consecutive playoff win as they chase their third straight Stanley Cup.
“(The Leafs are) a great hockey team — no doubt,” said Tampa center Steve Stamkos. “They have all the pieces. It’s just not easy at this time of year. That’s one of the hardest series we’ve played. They have everything. It’s just, we also have everything.”
No team has won the Cup three times in a row since the New York Islanders won four from 1979 to 1982. They will have to beat the Panthers in the Battle of Florida to keep it going.
“We’re on the cusp of greatness here, and why the hell wouldn’t we storm through that door?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Not only will the Leafs go 56 years without winning a cup — the longest active drought in the NHL — but they still haven’t won a single round since 2004.
“The result was disappointing,” said Morgan Rielly, the lone Leaf scorer. “Good things have happened this year. As players, we want to keep playing, win a playoff series for our fans. Right now the feeling is the same (as losing last year). The result is the same, which is very disappointing.
“We are moving in the right direction. We are getting somewhere… There was a lot of confidence in our group.”
All the accolades of the regular season – Matthews’ 60-goal season, a franchise-best 115 points – now seem unmentionable.
Even the fact that their stars played better in the playoffs – setting career highs – seems pointless. But for the record, Matthews had four goals and five assists, Rielly three goals and three assists. Marner had two goals and six assists.
The stakes in the play-offs were much better. But the forward movement is too slow.
“We got a lot of respect in that (handshake) line from their team, which was nice to see. It was a very different tone and a very different sense of respect on the other side of what we’ve been through before,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “We certainly deserve respect in the competition. But again, we are not game in that respect. We are in the winning game.”
Ice cream at home
The Leafs have had home ice in situations like this before, but never with a crowded Scotiabank Arena. Columbus’ loss was to empty stands and the loss to Montreal was played to 550 first responders due to pandemic restrictions.
This time a packed arena (19,316) and an overcrowded audience full of fanatical supporters and nervous nellies went home disappointed. It marked the ninth time in a row that they failed to close the deal since losing 7-4 in Game 7 in Boston on April 25, 2018. The team has gone through many changes since then. Only Matthews, Marner, Rielly and William Nylander are left of that team that lost to Boston.
But the results were the same: Three games up to two, then losing Games 6 and 7 to Boston in 2019. Losing the deciding Game 5 to Columbus in the shorter best-of-five qualifier in 2020. And somehow a find a way to blow a three-game lead over one to Montreal last year.
This time they were three games for two on Tampa.
“It feels different. It hurts a bit more, to be honest,” said Keefe. “This one hurts more because this was a really good team that played really hard. And the fact that you’re getting so close to that team, this is difficult because I really feel like we’re a lot closer than it seems.”
There will be calls for layoffs and swaps. The players themselves will spend another spring wondering what could have been, while Leafs management will face another draft season with a restrictive salary cap with players like Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev, Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin taking unlimited free agency. enter.
In a series where the referee was almost as much of the story as the teams themselves, the Leafs may have a right to feel hard on some of the appeals against them.
In Game 6, it was a phantom high stick that led to Tampa scoring the power play goal that forced overtime and brought the series back to Toronto for Game 7.
Then in the second period on Saturday, a goal behind, a goal by the Leafs was recalled as Justin Holl was called up for interference in the game. It was as bizarre a phone call as it has ever been. Tavares skated around Holl, using him as a block to dodge Anthony Cirelli, who eventually skated into the large Leafs defender.
That nullified the goal and put Tampa on a power play, which killed the Leafs.
Rielly scored shortly afterwards, on a feed from Matthews, to make it 1-1.
Paul scored the opening goal to finish a two-on-one in a first period that was largely clear on both sides and dominated by blocking shots. After Rielly’s goal, Paul scored again in the second to give Tampa a 2-1 lead going into the third period.
“We knew this was going to come into the series, that it would be a challenge going into the third period against this team,” said Keefe. “They have been the number one team in the NHL for the entire regular season when it comes to limiting chances against in the third period. That is the hallmark of their success. That’s championship hockey.”
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