John Tavares could barely make eye contact as he summed up his emotions. Auston Matthews’s head was down, too, and he spoke in hushed tones and short sentences. Jason Spezza had been spotted on the ice in tears as the game ended.
That’s the agony of defeat.
And it follows the Maple Leafs around in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We’re getting sick and tired of feeling like this,” said winger Mitch Marner. “This one is going to sting for quite a bit.”
Another season of high expectations and amazing regular-season accomplishments ended in disappointment. Just when you thought they couldn’t lose a Game 7 again, not with the home crowd behind them this time, they did.
“Guys competed. It’s just hard to explain. It’s obviously frustrating. Hard to fathom, ”said Tavares. “We did not accomplish what we wanted to accomplish. It stings. It hurts. It’s disappointing. ”
The Maple Leafs continue to play with the emotions of their faithful following, getting tantalizingly close to winning a round – admittedly a modicum of Stanley Cup playoff glory – and coming up short.
On Saturday night, they put up a much more spirited 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 inches. Unfortunately, we were on the bad side of things tonight, ”said Matthews. “It’s really frustrating. It’s really disappointing. Every guy in there competed and gave it their all. Ultimately, they made one more play than us and they were able to win the game. ”
It was Nick Paul – a trade-deadline acquisition and GTHL product, who was once traded for Spezza and used to attend Leafs games with the Domi family – who did the Leafs in. He scored both goals in the Lightning’s ninth playoff series victory in a row, as they chase their third consecutive Stanley Cup.
“(The Leafs are) a great hockey team – no doubt,” said Tampa center Steve Stamkos. “They’ve got all the pieces. It’s just not easy at this time of year. That’s one of the toughest series we’ve played. They have everything. It’s just, we have everything, too. ”
No team has won the Cup three times in a row since the New York Islanders won four from 1979 to 1982. They’ll have to beat the Panthers in the Battle of Florida to keep it going.
“We’re standing here on the cusp of greatness, and why the hell wouldn’t we charge through that door?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Not only are the Leafs going on 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 outcome was disappointing,” said Morgan Rielly, the lone Leaf scorer. “There were good things that 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 outcome is the same, which is very disappointing.
“We’re moving in the right direction. We’re getting somewhere … There was a lot of belief in our group. ”
All the accolades from the regular season – Matthews’s 60-goal season, a franchise-best 115 points – seem moot now.
Even the fact 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 effort in the playoffs was far better. But the movement forward 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 much different feeling of respect on the other side from what we’ve experienced before, ”said coach Sheldon Keefe. “We’re certainly earning respect in the league. But again we’re not in that respect game. We’re in the winning game. ”
The Leafs have had home ice in such situations before, but never with a packed Scotiabank Arena. The Columbus loss was in front of empty stands, and the loss to Montreal was played before 550 first responders because of pandemic restrictions.
This time a packed arena (19,316) and an overflow crowd filled with fanatical supporters and nervous nellies went home disappointed. It was the ninth straight time they’d failed to seal the deal since losing 7-4 in Game 7 in Boston on April 25, 2018. The team has gone through plenty of changes since. Only Matthews, Marner, Rielly and William Nylander remain from that team that lost to Boston.
But the results have been the same: Up three games to two, then losing Games 6 and 7 against Boston in 2019. Losing the decisive Game 5 to Columbus in the shorter best-of-five qualifying round in 2020. And somehow finding a way to blow a three-games-to-one lead to Montreal last year.
This time, they were up three games to two on Tampa.
“It feels different. It hurts a little more, to be honest, ”said Keefe. “This one hurts more because this was a really good team that really played hard. And the fact that you come that close against that team, this one’s tough, because I really feel like we’re a lot closer than it appears. ”
There will be calls for firings and trades. The players themselves will spend another spring wondering what might have been, while Leafs management will have to deal with another signing season under a restrictive salary cap with players such as Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev, Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin entering unrestricted free agency.
In a series where the refereeing was nearly as much of the story as the teams themselves, the Leafs might have a right to feel hard done by some of the calls 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, down a goal, the Leafs had a goal called back because Justin Holl was called for interference on the play. It was as bizarre a call as there has been. Tavares skated around Holl, using him as a block, to get free of Anthony Cirelli, who ended up skating into the big Leafs defenceman.
That nullified the goal and put Tampa on a power play, which the Leafs killed.
Rielly scored shortly after, on a feed from Matthews, to tie the game 1-1.
Paul scored the opening goal, finishing off a two-on-one in a first period that was largely mistake-free on both sides, and dominated by shot blocking. 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 coming into the series, that going into third periods down against this team was going to be challenging,” said Keefe. “They’re the number one team in the NHL when it comes to limiting chances against in the third period, all regular season. That’s the hallmark of their success. That’s championship hockey. ”
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