There was a time this year when Jack Campbell completely lost his confidence. Where he couldn’t make routine saves. He couldn’t stop a beach ball if he tried.
It happened in early March, right around the time he was missing a few weeks with a mysterious rib injury that was taking longer and longer to heal. And for a while there, you didn’t quite know if the Toronto Maple Leafs goalkeeper wasn’t playing because he was injured or because he was afraid of hurting his team.
That version of Jack Campbell was not the one we saw in a seven-game run against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
And yet it still wasn’t enough, as the Leafs lost 2-1 in Game 7.
Like Frederik Andersen in 2018 and 2019, and James Reimer before him, Campbell couldn’t get the job done again in a must-win Game 7. He couldn’t beat Andrei Vasilevskiy, just like he couldn’t beat Montreal’s Carey Price. a year ago.
But that doesn’t mean he — and the core members of this Leafs team — shouldn’t get another chance to do it again.
Campbell, who played this season without knowing if his next contract was coming — or where he might come from — passed the test even if he didn’t get the Leafs past the first round. He deserves an extension. In fact, based on the way he went save-for-save against Vasilievskiy for most of this series, you could argue that the 30-year-old deserves a serve.
That will be one of many questions for GM Kyle Dubas to answer in yet another low season of uncertainty. That is, if Dubas is still the one running things. Anything can happen after the team fails to make it to the second round after six consecutive years of post-season qualifying. What can’t happen is to let Campbell walk.
The Leafs have several pending unlimited free agents, including Ilya Mikheyev, Jason Spezza, and Mark Giordano. But their main one is the one that fans call “Souuuuuuuup”.
Scroll through the list of reasons Toronto didn’t get past Tampa Bay and you won’t find Campbell’s name anywhere. He answered the bell, shutout Game 1 and racked up a 3.33 goals against average in the first six games. Even when he was drawn in Game 4, he recovered with a valiant performance of 32 saves in a crucial Game 5 win.
In Game 7, the stakes were higher. And again, he didn’t fold.
The Leafs didn’t need Campbell to stand on his head or steal a win. They just needed him to keep them in the game like he had the entire series. He did just that, stopping 23 of the 25 shots. But unfortunately for the Leafs, the goalkeeper on the other side of the ice was just that little bit better.
This series had not been a goalkeeper duel. Far from it, actually. Heading into Game 7, both teams combined had scored a whopping 44 goals in six games. Most of it had to do with the quality of the talent up front rather than the quality of the goalkeepers.
After all, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos can make even the best look ordinary.
That changed in Game 7. After six games below average, you know that Tampa Bay’s Vasilevskiy would show up, just as Price had shown up when Montreal had their backs against Toronto last year. Vasilevskiy, who was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner last year, is so good, that clutch. After all, in a recent NHLPA player poll, he was voted the goalkeeper you want in a game you need to win.
The real Vasilevskiy came to play on Saturday. This was the first game in which he did not concede three or more goals. This was the first game you saw the goalkeeper who had won the playoff MVP last year.
Vasilevskiy was fantastic early on, stopping John Tavares and Marner in the first period with direct chances. Even when the Leafs defeated him, Vasilevskiy had the help of the umpires on the ice, who dismissed a crucial second period goal from Tavares for an illegal choice that could have changed the outcome of the game.
Meanwhile, Campbell did his best to preserve the fort. He allowed no soft goals and made no mistakes. But he wasn’t perfect either. And on this night, the Leafs could have used perfection.
Tampa Bay scored first when a shot by Ross Colton bounced off Morgan Rielly’s stick and nearly fooled Campbell, who made the save but coughed up a juicy rebound for Nick Paul for his first of two goals in the game.
After Toronto tied the score with a tic-tac-toe pass from Marner to Matthews to Rielly, Tampa Bay made it 2-1 on another goal from Paul, who covered around TJ Brodie before receiving a wrist shot. slipped past Campbell.
In the third period, Paul almost had a hat-trick when he came running down the wing and headed towards the net. He was pushed onto Campbell’s leg from behind. The puck failed and Campbell stayed in the game.
Again he kept Toronto within striking distance.
In other words, he was doing his job. But on this night, not enough of his teammates could do the same.