The Maple Leafs have made this difficult journey before, from the ice handshake line to the silent locker room and media podium, with the weight of a Game 7 lost and a first-round exit sending them into the early part of summer. .
“We’re getting tired of feeling this way,” winger Mitch Marner said as he soaked up his sixth straight loss in the opening round. “This is going to hurt 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 it all on Saturday but fell short of the Tampa Bay Lightning, losing 2-1.
It was the ninth time the Leafs failed to win an elimination game since 2018.
If the Hockey Hall of Fame had a Believe It or Not exhibit, Leafs team photos from that year would show the best team that never won a first-round series.
They were denied again, with an entire ‘nation’ around Scotiabank Arena within a tantalizing 60 minutes of celebration mode, and briefly tied in the second period, hoping to unleash 18 years of playoff angst since the last advance.
But a 115-point club made up of a potential winner of Hart and Ted Lindsay, an all-star right winger, plenty of goals and a solid, fast-paced style found a two-time Stanley Cup champion who was unwilling to relinquish his throne.
“This hurts a little more than last year (beating a 3-1 to underdog Montreal),” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “This was a really good team that really played hard. And the fact that we got so close to this team, what they stand for and what they’ve achieved.
“We had opportunities to finish them in Game 6 (losing in overtime), but the fact that we’re so close… this one is tough. I feel like we’re a lot closer than it looks.
“But this team has the recipe and they found it.”
In Game 7, that meant scoring first to take away the maddening crowd for a while, reclaim the lead and set up Andrei Vasilevskiy’s goal for a close win.
“It’s a fine line.” said Captain John Tavares about Saturday’s result. “Sometimes it’s just timing, our opportunities in Game 6, we had a good look. We had a few looks on the third tonight, they blocked the shots and made it difficult to get to the net.
“The belief is strong in that room and how tight it is, to break through. It’s just hard to deal with the circumstances right now. We work all year to be prepared for these opportunities. Like I said, it’s a fine line.”
Holding Jack Campbell pulled from the Leafs net, Lightning’s victory took him into the conference semifinals against the Florida Panthers and Leafs for another unwelcome start to summer.
The core of Auston Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, Tavares and Morgan Rielly will undoubtedly need time to heal.
“They’re a team that was one of the toughest series we’ve probably played,” said Lightning’s Steven Stamkos. “They’ve got the stars, they’ve got the goalkeeper, solid defenders, you’re on the roster and they’ve got it all. It’s just that we believed in ourselves too.”
Tampa was able to move up the frame moments after the injury, Nick Paul in perfect position for a Ross Colton rebound with Campbell stretched out of position.
Tavares thought he had equalized at half-time, but Justin Holl was given a 50-50 interference penalty for cutting a Tampa defender in pursuit of the Leafs captain.
Rielly converted correctly, receiving a pass from Matthews and defeating Vasilevskiy, after Campbell made spectacular saves while Toronto was short of players. Nylander almost beat the Russian again on a partial break in the same period, but goalkeeper Bolts was solid the rest of the night.
Paul, born in nearby Mississauga, took the lead again before the frame was over when Jake Muzzin was fouled at the blue line and managed to get in and beat Campbell. The Leafs’ number 1 power play was 0-3 on Saturday and not the difference it could have been in the series.
Since the loss to Montreal last May, many critics have thought that general manager Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe are done if the Leafs fail to get out of the first round for the sixth straight time and someone from the ‘Core Four’ attacks. I had to go.
That glaring option waned as the Leafs became crowd-pleasers throughout the season, set plenty of individual and team records, and filled the SBA as COVID-19 rules eased, not to mention those four lucrative home playoff dates.
Most of Dubas’ roster miscalculations have been fixed, though the Leafs still remain short of the blue line depth.
Campbell could become a free agent and if any of the top four are not moved, it is likely that winger Ilya Mikheyev’s time is up as the money must be found for the goalkeeper.
Decisions must also be made on UFA forwards Jason Spezza, who will turn 39 this summer, and defenders Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano. Spezza, Giordano and Wayne Simmonds were veterans of 1,000 games trying to end their personal Cup droughts.
Meanwhile, coach Jon Copper’s Lightning now pursues a different kind of story. Where winning just one Cup in the salary cap era is a challenge, they are now 12 wins out of three in a row, during which time they have a 17-0 record in games after a loss.
“It’s been exciting,” Cooper said ahead of Game 7. “I look back and 2019 doesn’t seem that long ago, but in essence it’s been over three years and since we’ve had that heartbreak (a Presidents Trophy season ending in a stunning four Columbus games) and we’ve never looked back.
“I saw these guys in every possible adversity and they found a way to emerge. Has it been taxed? It has, not really physically, but probably mentally. To get up everyday and fight things when you can say ‘you know what? We’ve already done it and it’s okay if we don’t (repeat)’.
“But these guys won’t accept it. It’s been pretty impressive. It’s been a blast the last three years and as I told them, our story isn’t finished being written.”
Cooper wants to see them 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 about now.