The Maple Leafs have made this difficult trek before, from the handshake line on the ice to their quiet locker room to the media podium, with the weight of a Game 7 lost and a first-round exit sending them into an early summer.
“We’re getting tired of feeling this way,” said winger Mitch Marner as he took a sixth straight defeat in the opening round. “This will sting a little bit, but when we come back we have to make sure we come back as a better team, in terms of strength, faster, faster. We have to make sure we are ready.”
Toronto gave everything on Saturday, but came up short for the Tampa Bay Lightning and lost 2-1.
It marked the ninth time the Leafs have failed to win an elimination game dating back to 2018
If the Hockey Hall of Fame had a Believe It Or Not exhibit, team photos of the Leafs since that year would show the best team that never won a first-round series.
They were denied again, with an entire ‘nation’ centered around Scotiabank Arena, a tantalizing 60 minutes of celebration mode, and briefly equalizing in the second period, hoping to unleash 18 years of play-off dread since they were last advanced.
But a 115-point club made up of a potential Hart and Ted Lindsay winner, an all-star right winger, goals galore and solid up-tempo style came across a two-time Stanley Cup champion who was unwilling to give up throne.
“This hurts a little more than last year (3-1 to underdog Montreal),” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “This was a very good team that played very hard. And the fact that we are so close to that team, what they stand for and what they have achieved.
“We had chances to finish them in Game 6 (loss in overtime), but the fact that we were so close… this one is difficult. I have a feeling we are much closer than it seems.
“But that team has the recipe and they came up with it.”
In Game 7, that meant scoring first to take the manic crowd out of the game for a while, re-taking the lead and leading Andrei Vasilevskiy’s goaltending to the tight win.
“It’s a thin line.” Captain John Tavares said about Saturday’s result. “Sometimes it’s just timing, our chances in Game 6, we looked good. We had cans in the third tonight, they blocked shots and made it hard to get to the net.
“The faith is strong in that room and no matter how tight it is, to break through. It’s just hard to just deal with the circumstances. We work all year round to be ready for these opportunities. Like I said, it’s a thin line.”
Jack Campbell continued to cling to the Leafs net, and the Lightning’s win sent it to the conference semifinals against the Florida Panthers and the Leafs to another unwanted early summer.
The core of Auston Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, Tavares and Morgan Rielly will undoubtedly need healing time.
“It’s a team that was one of the hardest series we’ve probably played,” said Lightning’s Steven Stamkos. “They’ve got the star players, they’ve got the goalkeeper, solid defenders, you’re on the list and they’ve got everything. It’s just, we believed in ourselves too.”
Tampa was able to get on the board moments after the injury, Nick Paul in perfect position for a rebound from Ross Colton’s shot with Campbell out of position.
Tavares thought he equalized in the middle period, but Justin Holl was handed a 50-50 interference penalty for cutting off a Tampa defender chasing the Leafs captain.
Rielly converted correctly, took a Matthews drop pass and defeated Vasilevskiy, after Campbell made spectacular saves while Toronto was shorthanded. Nylander nearly beat the Russian again on a partial break in the same period, but the Bolts goalkeeper was solid for the rest of the night.
Born in nearby Mississauga, Paul once again secured the lead before the frame ended when Jake Muzzin was overthrown at the blueline and he was able to invade and beat Campbell. The Leafs number 1 power play was 0-for-3 on Saturday and not the difference it could have been in the series.
Since Montreal’s loss last May, it has been in the minds of many critics that general manager Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe were done if the Leafs failed to make it out of the first round for the sixth time in a row and someone of the ‘Core Four’ had to move forward.
That grim option faded as the Leafs became crowd-pleasers for a season, setting many team and individual records and filling SBA as COVID-19 rules eased, not to mention these four lucrative home playoff dates.
Most of the bugs in Dubas’ roster have been fixed, although the Leafs still don’t have enough depth.
Campbell could become a free agent and if one of the four cores is not moved, winger Ilya Mikheyev’s time is likely to be over as money has to be found for the keeper.
Decisions also need to be made about UFA forward Jason Spezza, who turns 39 this summer, and defenders Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano. Spezza, Giordano and Wayne Simmonds were 1000-game veterans looking to end their personal cup drought.
Coach Jon Copper’s Lightning is now looking for a different kind of history. Where winning just one cup in the salary cap era has been a challenge, they are now 12 wins away from three straight, during which time they hold a record 17-0 in games after a loss.
“It was exciting,” Cooper said before Game 7. “Looking back, 2019 doesn’t seem that long ago, but essentially it’s been over three years and since we had that heartbreak (a Presidents’ Trophy season that ended in a stunning four-game sweep by Columbus) and we’ve never really looked back.
“I’ve seen these guys in every possible setback and they’ve found a way out. Has it been taxing? It has, not really physically, but probably mentally. To get up every day and fight through things when you could say ‘you know what? We did it and it’s okay if we don’t (repeat)’.
“But these guys don’t accept that. It’s been pretty impressive. It’s been great the last three years and as I’ve told them, our story isn’t over yet.”
Cooper wants them to be established as the first dominant team of the 2020s, like Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles were in the 2010s.
It’s something the Leafs can only dream of right now.