SIMMONS: Different Team, Better Team, Same Heartbreak for Maple Leafs

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This wasn’t about 18 years of futility. This wasn’t 55 years without a Stanley Cup. This was not about what may or may not have happened in the past.

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This wasn’t about the entire history of the Maple Leafs playoff defeat in the past – and some will make it so – or the frustration of ruining a 4-1 lead in Boston or a 3-1 lead in the series against a so-so Montreal team. Or all the past Game 7 defeats.

This was about one night, one game, one punch in the stomach and a lot of frustration.

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This was different, this series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and that’s how it should be viewed. These were two great hockey teams playing, one playoff series, one goal difference at the end, and one team’s season was about to end in a terrible disappointment.

Someone had to lose.

And again, that someone was the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And that feels awful and empty and it’s terribly frustrating and it’s more disappointing because the Tampa Bay Lightning are so close – or the Leafs are so close to the champion Lightning – and lost a great, record-breaking season in Game 7 after losing from Game 6 into overtime and it’s easy to feel they left something on the table here.

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But this team is different. And this opponent was different.

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This Leafs team was emotional. This team was mostly smart. That’s why they had the most points in Leafs history. That’s why they won the most games ever.

If you want to be disappointed today, you have every right to be. It’s good to expect more. It’s good to want a playoff run.

The Leafs themselves certainly feel that way. They don’t want to hear about the past. They have John Ferguson Jr. or Brian Burke not hired to lead this team. They didn’t trade for Owen Nolan or Brian Leetch or Phil Housley. That happened when these Leafs were kids.

But people like Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly, who collectively achieved the only score in Toronto that was not recalled by officials, are feeling lousy today. This defeat wasn’t necessarily for them, or any single player on the Leafs, but it doesn’t mean it can’t hurt. Hurts a lot.

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Matthews has scored the most goals in the NHL this season and the most goals in the NHL since he entered the league and the save of the night from the world’s goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy came on a shot from Matthews. A goal would have given the Leafs a 2-1 lead, a lead they never had on Saturday night at the Scotiabank Arena.

This is what Vasilevskiy has done throughout his career in big matches and big moments. He makes stops that other goalkeepers can’t make. He stopped at Matthews.

Not long after, Nick Paul, the Mississauga kid, got the trade deadline pick-up date, the kind of bounce the Leafs didn’t seem to get this night and gave Tampa a 2-1 lead. The goal almost seemed like a reaction to the Matthews shot that didn’t score – the kind of momentum Dominik Hasek used to provide his teammates – the shot came not long after William Nylander had a semi-break, attempted a backhand high that went over the just instead of inside.

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Two Leafs chances, no goals. One Tampa chance, one goal. That’s the game. That’s the series.

Now the Leafs season is over. Now there will be hand-wringing and blaming because that’s what happens at the end of every season. So who is responsible for the Leafs losing 2-1 when they had the highest-scoring hockey player, the best powerplay in the league, and one of the most creative passers in the game? Who is responsible for all this?

You can start with Vasilevskiy and then move up to Lightning coach Jon Cooper – the best goalkeeper in the business and the best coach in the business.

Vasilevskiy didn’t have to stop the puck so often. The Tampa players before him blocked the most shots, 26 shots in all. They took care of the front of theirs just like champions usually do. They didn’t give the Leafs space. They made everything difficult. This is just one of the reasons they’ve won two Stanley Cups and are on their way to what could be a third.

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The Leafs were brave in their efforts to get pucks through, find open players, and think a little too often about what to do with the puck. That is something that has chased this team in previous playoffs.

With all these attacks, they had to produce more and they had to get something from players other than the Big Four and Rielly on the defensive. That’s something they need to improve on.

Do these Leafs care enough to face another first-round defeat?

All you had to do to see Matthews go through the handshake line. His eyes were almost wet. His expression was pure sadness. With all the money, all the prizes, all the accolades, he can’t buy what he wanted most on Saturday night.

This season is over. Too early again. This one is different from the past 55 years. This was a team that could have gone somewhere. They were so close. They were that real.

In the end, they were so heartbroken again.

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