Beyond the Leafs: It’s an all too-familiar-story in another one-and-done season

What a disaster. The Toronto Maple Leafs organization specializes in such things, whether in slow motion or all at once, going back 54 years. There have been indelible collapses. There have been decades of failure. This particular team, laden with stars and with an easier path, was supposed to be different.

They weren’t. If you wanted a loss that should shake the pillars of this franchise, this was it. In an era built for Cup contention, with the best Leafs team in decades, gifted a road to a Stanley Cup quarterfinals that only required marching through the mediocre fields of Canada, they blew it. Toronto lost 3-1 in Game 7 to the Montreal Canadiens, and blew a 3-1 lead in the series to an inferior team.

This Toronto core is now 0-for-7 in games that could have won a playoff series, and became the first team to lose four deciding games in four straight years. The world changes, faster and faster. But some traditions, apparently, endure.

“It’s as hard as it gets,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly, who has a very good series amid the collapse. “The expectations were much higher … the goals are higher than what we achieved this year, and that makes the disappointment much worse. I mean, we feel it, and we realize we let an opportunity slip.”

This will join the annals of “It Was 4-1” and any other Boston Game 7 blowout you want to name. This is a season burned, a year of contention wasted, for a team with two significant defencemen over 30, a leading younger defenceman who is a year from free agency, and a second-line centre who has passed 30 and was never very fast to begin with. This is the best Leafs team we have seen in almost two decades, and maybe more. And they let this happen.

Yes, Toronto lost John Tavares from a top-heavy roster. Yes, Jake Muzzin has been their best defenceman this year, and suffered a groin injury in Game 6. Yes, trade-deadline acquisition Nick Foligno was hurt enough to be dropped to the fourth line.

But this series forced the Leafs to confront their biggest weaknesses, structurally and otherwise. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander — who scored five goals and had eight points in the series — Rielly and the injured Tavares infamously occupy $43.9 million (U.S.) of an $81.5-million salary cap, with Rielly due a raise after next season.

Marner looked like he forgot his lines while stuck on stage. His blue-line turnover led to a bad first goal in the second period that Jack Campbell should have stopped, but people make mistakes. (“Worst goal of my career,” Campbell said.) It would be hard to imagine a worse series for Marner. After the game his baseball cap shaded his eyes, but he seemed hollowed out.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the best player every single night,” said Marner, who hasn’t scored in 18 playoff games. “I felt like I wasn’t living up to my own standards, and just have to make sure that stops happening.”

Matthews had stretches of dominance early in the series, but didn’t record a shot attempt until over 11 minutes into the second period, when he grazed the outside of a post. He had one shot on goal at five-on-five.

“In my opinion, we didn’t have any shortage of chances,” said Matthews.

Matthews and Marner combined for one goal in the series. You can get unlucky in hockey, or goalied, but at some point you do it or you don’t. The problem with betting big on your biggest stars is: What happens if those stars get hurt? What happens if they get unlucky? What happens if they’re flawed?

The question going forward is how much of this was which? And how much of this will push them, versus scar them? This game was scars.

“I really don’t think that there was anything that happened in the past that played into this series,” said Rielly. “In my opinion.”

“It’s a new year, it’s a completely different team,” said Matthews. “We live in the moment, and we move past those.”

Except it happened again. That lack of urgency that showed up in Game 3 against Columbus last year showed up in Games 5 and 6 this time. That fear of making a mistake, and tendency to fade once it happens, happened in Game 7 in Boston in 2018, and Game 6 against Boston in 2019, and in Game 7 of this series, too. At times so many Leafs desperate to make a play, when the best teams turn desperation into a furious calm and purpose. Those flaws are baked in, and have lasted years.

Carey Price was great, but he didn’t steal this series. Toronto just wasn’t good enough.

“We felt we were capable of a lot more, not just tonight but in the whole series,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “We added enough pieces and depth to be able to deal with those situations, so there’s zero excuses.”

The Leafs have been talking for three years about getting ready for moments like these, and when the moment came, again, they didn’t seem very ready for it at all. Too often they played their hardest and best only once they’d fallen behind. If you thought the Leafs were a national punchline before, well, there’s another joke on the table now.



So, disaster. After last season’s disappointment general manager Kyle Dubas was asked if it’s possible the organization had misjudged the potential of this group. He said, “No.” He said, we’ve seen what they can do.

So have we. Maybe this fuels them. Maybe this is Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in Washington. Marner will take the heat, but with the bonus structure and that contract, it would be hard to trade him anyway and get value back. So, you let them grow, probably. What must it be like, believing in this franchise? Toronto made the playoffs once in the 11 years before Matthews came here. For Toronto hockey, it’s a golden age.

And this can still happen, and it does, and it did. It was a reminder of the pre-pandemic world, and the five decades before that, and the only rule in Toronto remains the same: that the Leafs will always let you down.


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