The Maple Leafs have made this difficult trek before, from the handshake line on the ice to their silent dressing room to the media podium, with the weight of a lost Game 7 and a first round exit sending them to an early summer.
“We’re getting sick of tired of feeling like this,” said winger Mitch Marner as he absorbed a sixth straight loss in the opening round. “This will sting for quite a bit, but when we do come back, we have to make sure we come back as a better team, strength-wise, faster, quicker. We have to make sure we’re ready.”
Toronto gave it everything Saturday, but came up short to the Tampa Bay Lightning, losing 2-1.
It was the ninth time the Leafs have failed to win an elimination game going back to 2018
If the Hockey Hall of Fame had a Believe It Or Not exhibit, team photos of the Leafs since that year would showcase the best team never to win a first round series.
They were denied again, with an entire ‘nation’ around Scotiabank Arena a tantalizing 60 minutes from celebration mode, and briefly tied in the second period, hoping to release 18 years of playoff angst since they last advanced.
But a 115-point club composed of a possible Hart and Ted Lindsay winner, an all-star right winger, goals galore and a solid up-tempo style ran into a two-time Stanley Cup champion unwilling to yield its throne.
“This hurts a little more than last year (blowing a 3-1 to underdog Montreal),” head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “This was a really good team that really played hard. And the fact we come that close against that team, what they stand for and what they’ve accomplished.
“We had opportunities to finish them in Game 6 (losing in overtime), but the fact we were that close … this one is tough. I feel we’re a lot closer than it appears.
“But that team has the recipe and they’ve figured it out.”
In Game 7, that meant scoring first to take the manic crowd out of it for a while, re-take the lead and ride Andrei Vasilevskiy’s goaltending to the tight win.
“It’s a fine line.” captain John Tavares said of Saturday’s result. “Sometimes it’s just timing, our opportunities in Game 6, we had a good looks. We had looks in the third tonight, they blocked shots and made it hard 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 just deal with the circumstances right now. We work all year long to be ready for these opportunities. Like I say, it’s a fine line.”
Hanging on with Jack Campbell pulled from the Leafs net, the Lightning’s win sent it on to the conference semifinal against the Florida Panthers and the Leafs to the another unwelcome early summer.
The core of Auston Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, Tavares and Morgan Rielly is no doubt going to need healing time.
“They’re a team that was one of the toughest series we’ve probably played,” said Steven Stamkos of the Lightning. “They’ve got the star players, they’ve got the goaltender, solid defencemen, you got down the list and they’ve got everything. It’s just, we believed in ourselves too.”
Tampa was able to get on the board moments after the injury, Nick Paul in perfect position for a rebound of Ross Colton’s shot with Campbell stretched out of position.
Tavares thought he’d tied it in the middle period, but Justin Holl was given a 50-50 interference penalty for cutting off a Tampa defender in pursuit of the Leafs captain.
Rielly converted properly, taking a Matthews drop pass and beating Vasilevskiy, after Campbell made spectacular saves while Toronto was shorthanded. Nylander nearly beat the Russian up top again on a partial break in the same period, but the Bolts goalie was solid the rest of the night.
Paul, born in nearby Mississauga, provided the lead again before the frame ended, when Jake Muzzin was knocked over at the blueline and he was able to burst in and beat Campbell. The Leafs No. 1-ranked power play was 0-for-3 Saturday and not the difference it could have been in the series.
Since losing to Montreal last May, it was in many critics’ heads that general manager Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe were done if the Leafs failed to get out of the first round a sixth straight time and that someone from the ‘Core Four’ forwards had to go.
That stark option waned as the Leafs became season-long crowd pleasers, set many team and individual records and filled SBA when COVID-19 rules eased, not to mention these four lucrative home playoff dates.
Most of Dubas’ roster miscalculations were fixed, though the Leafs still remain short of blueline depth.
Campbell could become a free agent and if any of the core four aren’t moved, it’s likely winger Ilya Mikheyev’s time is done as money must be found for the goalie.
Decisions must also be made on UFA forwards Jason Spezza, who will be 39 this summer and defencemen Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano. Spezza, Giordano and Wayne Simmonds were 1,000-game veterans looking to end their personal Cup droughts.
Coach Jon Copper’s Lightning, meanwhile, now seek a different kind of history. Where winning just one Cup in the salary cap era is a challenge, they’re now 12 wins away from three consecutive, during which time they have a record of 17-0 in games following a loss.
“It’s been exhilarating,” Cooper said before Game 7. “I look back and 2019 doesn’t seem too long ago, but in essence it was over three years and since we had that heartbreak (a Presidents’ Trophy season ending in a stunning four-game sweep by Columbus) and we never really looked back.
“I’ve seen these guys in every adversity possible and they’ve found a way to emerge. Has it been taxing? It has, not really physically, but probably mentally. To get up every single day and fight through things when you might say ‘you know what? We’ve done it and it’s okay if we don’t (repeat)’.
“But these guys won’t accept that. It’s been pretty impressive. It’s been a blast these past three year and as I’ve told them, our story is not finished being written.”
Cooper wants to see them established as the first dominant team of the 2020s, as Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles were in the 2010s.
It’s something the Leafs can only dream about right now.