Not again. They couldn’t lose a Game 7 again. Not with the home crowd behind them this time.
But they did.
The Maple Leafs continue to play with the emotions of their faithful following, getting tantalizingly close to winning a round – admittedly a small 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 was Nick Paul – a trade-deadline acquisition and GTHL product, who was once traded for Jason 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 Stanley Cup in a row.
“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 earlier in the day.
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.
Morgan Rielly scored for the Leafs, assisted by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Jack Campbell faced 25 shots.
“The outcome was disappointing,” said Rielly, the longest serving Leaf. “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.
“It’s really frustrating, really disappointing,” said Matthews. “Every guy competed and gave it their all. They made one more play than us. It was a game of inches; it was close.
“It’s the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. They’ve been thorough a lot as well. We’re right there. ”
Not only have the Leafs failed to win the Cup for 56 years – the longest active drought in the NHL – but they still haven’t won a single round since 2004.
“Hard to fathom,” said Leafs captain John Tavares. “We did not accomplish what we wanted to accomplish. It stings, it hurts … we haven’t been able to get past this hurdle. ”
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 due to 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.
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.
“It’s a great hockey team, no doubt,” said Lightning captain Steven 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. ”
Over the first six games, there wasn’t much to choose between the teams. They were as similar to each other as their blue and white uniforms.
Prior to Saturday’s game, both sides spoke to what was motivating them. The Leafs were reminded of their disappointments in the first round in the past.
“We came out a little flat in those games, maybe a little bit scared to lose. We don’t need to be scared to lose, ”said Nylander. “Like, we’ve got a great team.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper had a different take.
“There’s always fear for me. The fear of losing is bigger than my want to win. To have a fear of losing, that’s a great motivator. ”
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. John 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.
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