Losing in a Game 7 is tough enough. You get so close to closing out a series and then have it slip out of your fingers at the last second.
Now imagine having that feeling year after year. That’s the reality of the Maple Leafs.
Toronto fell to Tampa Bay 2-1 in Game 7 of their first-round series Saturday night, yet again suffering an early exit in the postseason. The Maple Leafs were up 3-2 in the series after a 4-3 win in Game 5, but lost in overtime in Game 6 before suffering the defeat at home in the final game.
The club not only has not won a playoff series since 2004, but now it has lost five consecutive winner-take-all games and has been bounced in the first round in the last six postseasons.
The loss left a sour taste in the mouths of Maple Leafs players, who rightfully are annoyed with this continuous outcome.
“We’re getting sick and tired of feeling like this,” Mitch Marner said while holding back tears.
“It’s not right now,” Morgan Rielly said when asked if this loss felt different than year’s past. “The feeling is the same, the outcome is the same. Whether it’s different, that’s going to take some time to figure out.”
Rielly may not admit it now, but this loss did feel different than other losses. This wasn’t blowing a 3-1 series lead to the No. 16 Canadiens. It wasn’t falling short in the bubble against the Blue Jackets. It wasn’t fumbling a 4-1 third-period lead to the Bruins.
As much as you may want, it’s hard to laugh at the Leafs this time.
The reality is that they drew an extremely tough first-round matchup. Sure, the Lightning aren’t as “scary” as they were the past two years, but they’re still the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions with Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nikita Kucherov, etc. Toronto outplayed Tampa Bay for most of the series and it took Vasilevskiy finally finding his usual elite form for the Maple Leafs to be bounced.
The theme of being so close was a constant in the postgame press conference. Auston Matthews said “we’re right there, we’re right there,” and John Tavares echoed that sentiment.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish,” the Leafs captain said. “It stings. It hurts. It’s disappointing … We’re obviously right there. Such a fine line.”
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game the team got more “respect” after the loss. While that’s not what the Leafs wanted to take away from the series, there’s no doubting that teams recognize how this is a different Toronto club.
Then he adds: “We’re not in the respect game, we’re in the winning game. We’ve got to find a way to do that.”
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 15, 2022
The Maple Leafs’ play was praised by their opponents after the game as well, with Stamkos expressing his belief in the club’s future.
“It’s a great hockey team,” the Lightning captain said. “They’ve got all the pieces. It’s just not easy. We’ve had some failures in the past and you’ve just got to get over that hump. Sometimes it becomes mental. It certainly wasn’t because they’re not worthy of it. They are.”
Toronto enters an offseason where questions will be asked: Who stays, who goes, what changes are made.
But this Leafs team is different. There’s a very good chance that against any other Eastern Conference team, the Leafs would be the ones celebrating a series win.
Like Rielly said, it may not feel like it now, but this team should realize it is a legitimate contender. The core should stay the same. The coaching staff should stay the same. The front office should stay the same.
It’s a hard pill to swallow at the moment, knowing that it wasn’t enough this year, but the future is bright in Toronto.