Maple Leafs Deserved Better in First-Round Loss to Lightning

Another season, another heartbreaking end to the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff hopes as they were once again, defeated in Game 7 at the hands of the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

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On the surface, it looks like the same old song and dance in regards to the Maple Leafs after six straight seasons of playoff failures. However, compared to past groups with the core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and now John Tavares, this was the most determined and resilient team to play in any playoff series. 

Related: Offseason Changes: Confusion About Where Maple Leafs Go From Here

Even though they had questionable moments with their play, the talk of a new found mentality from the beginning of the season with this team was evident to prove everyone wrong. It was clear in the playoffs as the Maple Leafs showed that they can keep up with the best and not bow down easily. 

While some may not see it that way, this team definitely deserved better than the result that unfolded. 

Players Wanted This More Than Anything

The players had a lot to endure during this postseason. With pressure of past failures weighing on them, they didn’t falter or crack under pressure with constant disappointing performances one after another. The team proved that they were willing to battle in every game and show that they do have the mental toughness to overcome their past. 

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

They battled tough moments, especially through controversial calls like the phantom high-stick on Daivd Kämpf in Game 6 that led to a Nikita Kucherov 5-on-3 goal and a Tavares goal that was called back due to a Justin Holl interference penalty which was even more controversial given the nature of the game. Through it all, they didn’t show any signs of weakness.

In the end, they lost to a great hockey team. The Lightning have had their fair share of painful moments with their core and are repeat champs for a reason. Despite looking average most of the series with an .885 save percentage before Game 7, Andrei Vasilevskiy showed why he’s one of the best goaltenders in the league. The Maple Leafs mounted a ferocious attack every time and he proved to be a difference maker. In the end, despite playing with more intent, they still fell short.

The players knew that this was the year to get things done. The disappointment and emotion post game showed that they wanted this more than anything. They wanted to prove something and make the fans proud. 

“We’re getting sick and tired of feeling like this,” Marner said in a tweet by TSN’s Chris Johnston.

“It’s frustrating, hard to fathom,” Tavares said in a post by The Canadian Press’ Joshua Clipperton.“It stings, it hurts, it’s disappointing.” 

Matthews added, “We’re right there … we’re right there.”

This isn’t the team that lost to the Boston Bruins in back-to-back years. This isn’t the team that saw two, extremely disappointing outings against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens. This team was poised to dethrone a potential dynasty and they were extremely close to doing so as they played much better than the last four playoff performances. This team knew they could get it done and it showed. 

In the end a loss is a loss. This one might weigh on them more now, knowing that they had the mentality and mindset to get the job done.

Killer Instinct on Display

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has alluded to the Maple Leafs finding that “killer instinct” in order to play with a purpose dating back to the Canadiens series. 

Throughout the season, they showed it but at times it came into question. But would it show up in the playoffs? After watching this series, the killer instinct was definitely on display.

Auston Matthews Mitch Marner Celebrate Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner Celebrate a Goal (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Despite the loss, the Maple Leafs showed great resolve and no panic in their game when there was a momentum shift. They were able to bounce back after a loss until Game 7. They overcame multiple 2-0 deficits to claw their way back to take the lead and win Game 5, but fall short in Game 6. They were able to match the physicality and intensity when they needed to stand their ground and not get pushed around. Jack Campbell proved that he could battle and play up to the level of Vasilevskiy.

More importantly, the star players were the star players. This series showed that whatever low production was done in the past, wasn’t a factor this time.

Maple LeafsPointsLightningPoints
Matthews9Stamkos4
Marner8Point4
Tavares6Kucherov8
Nylander7Palat5
Rielly6Hedman7

The Maple Leafs stars combined for 36 points and outproduced the Lightning’s top players where they had 28. Tavares and William Nylander weren’t in the first half of the series, but picked it up from Game 4 and on. When they needed to produce, they did. The difference came down to the Lightning’s depth being there to provide an extra spark like the goals from Nick Paul than the Maple Leafs bottom six. 

While it was a very close series, the Maple Leafs did have the edge on five-on-five in regards to some of the underlying numbers. They had a better Corsi For percentage (50.68%), Fenwick For (52.88%) and a slim margin in shots for (50.34%).

The Maple Leafs showed that they are able to take charge of a series even when they appear to be down and out. That alone should serve as some reassurance that this team can play at their best, even when things aren’t looking up for them.

Avoid Drastic Changes

After a playoff loss, usually you expect to see changes. There weren’t many drastic ones after their collapse against the Canadiens, but it did serve as a warning if there was another poor performance. 

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

The Maple Leafs didn’t have that against the Lightning as they put forth a better effort and displayed the desire to win. No one, not even the coach or general manager Kyle Dubas, should lose their job. While results needed to be produced, this is a major step forward with this club. To make any rash decisions after one of the better playoff performances wouldn’t be wise, especially when all the stars lived up to expectations. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper even said that he would instantly want Matthews, Marner and Rielly on his team. 

Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: Dubas’ Future, Player Pride & Physicality

Yes, there needs to be some roster decisions, in regards to goaltending with Petr Mrazek, defense and forward depth, but there shouldn’t be anything major. Even if they do make a major shakeup, it has to make sense and not just for the sake of making one.

Given the performance and drive with this Maple Leafs team in their series against the Lightning, it’s definitely clear that they deserved a better fate as they were on the cusp of finally ending their playoff woes. The emotion is evident. They responded and showed it with their play on the ice. 

Even though they lost, this will motivate them more. This might be what sends them over the top.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.