It wasn’t the situation that the Toronto Maple Leafs wanted including their fan base. Up 3-1 in the series to their long time rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, only to see it disappear. With multiple opportunities to end the series with Game 5 and 6, the Maple Leafs found themselves in unwanted territory going into Game 7. It was the result that many didn’t want as the Maple Leafs lost to the Canadiens in a do or die game 3-1.
Knowing the past history with this team and the inability to show up and close out in series clinching games, everyone was on edge. Since 2016-17 with this revamped core, the Maple Leafs have made the playoffs four times and have bowed out in the first round. Three of those four series have gone the distance where they lost to the Boston Bruins twice in seven and to the Columbus Blue Jackets in five last season in the qualifying round.
Well, you can add another disastrous series loss to that column as the Maple Leafs couldn’t close out a 3-1 series lead.
Same Old Story
Once again, it was the same old story for the Maple Leafs. Instead of blowing the lead in a game, they managed to do the unthinkable and lose the series. After dominating Games 3 and 4 where they played textbook hockey, the Maple Leafs took a stranglehold on the series. They were poised to end it all on home ice after they’ve had all the momentum. They were the better team, despite not having captain John Tavares.
After being down 3-0 in Game 5, the Maple Leafs managed to claw their way back gaining the momentum heading into overtime. However, a costly turnover from Alex Galchenyuk in the first minute led to a disappointing loss. They were once again down in Game 6 and came back, like they did in Game 5. Yet, another poor turnover from Travis Dermott led to the game-winning goal.
Two crucial mistakes really hurt their chances at winning when they should’ve kept things simple. Although it was among other factors as well, as slow starts proved to be a real issue for them in the series as the game-by-game possession numbers from Natural Stat Trick shows. Slow starts in the playoffs are never a good sign for a team.
The Maple Leafs were in a prime spot to end it all as they were in the ideal situation to end the series as Game 5 should’ve sealed the deal and be the nail in the coffin. It looked like the life was sucked out of them and their response and effort was non-existent.
They did manage to come back with multiple efforts in the game, but failed to finish off the Canadiens in overtime. The Canadiens gained the momentum, ran away with it and didn’t look back at all. The Maple Leafs had no response and looked deflated ever since. Even down 1-0 in Game 7, the Maple Leafs looked defeated.
“Our guys were quite devastated,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said postgame according to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox. “We were in a good spot and didn’t close it out. We added enough pieces and depth and things like that to be able to deal with those types of situations. There’s zero excuses.”
There should be zero excuses.
If this was a one-time thing, fans and everyone in Leafs Nation would be disappointed but they wouldn’t be in this much of a frenzy. However, this was has been going on for some time. This is the second straight season where they lost to a team that the Maple Leafs had a significant advantage over their opponent in the playoffs. The Canadiens crawled in losing their last five games before the playoffs started and the Maple Leafs had an 18-point advantage over them in the standings. With the season the Maple Leafs had, they should’ve been able to shut down the Canadiens.
It seems like that statement is farther away than expected.
The Maple Leafs are all too familiar with their past in the postseason and they still have a hard time to overcome that mental aspect of the game. Given their situation, they could’ve pulled through and exorcise their demons. They could’ve given their captain a chance to return and play in the second round.
Once again, this is just seen as another failed attempt to finally put their past behind them and find success. This was supposed to be their best chance to make a deep run. How long will it take before this team has said they’ve had enough of losing?
Stars Didn’t Shine When Needed
Maple Leafs star centre Auston Matthews came to play in the qualifying round last season, putting up six points in five games. Though the secondary scoring wasn’t there and the offense dried up at the worst possible time. This time, the secondary scoring was prevalent but Matthews struggled to find the score sheet. Matthews’ lone goal came in Game 2 after a rebound shot from defenseman Justin Holl.
While the Rocket Richard winner went cold, he was still noticeable when he was given the opportunity. He had 35 shots on net in the series for a shooting percentage of 2.9%, which is very uncharacteristic of him. At five-on-five he led the team with 39 individual Corsi For and 24 individual scoring chances for, his second highest total in his playoff career. Call it bad luck, but nothing seemed to go his way.
We know what Matthews is capable of with his offensive scoring touch. He had his chances, but couldn’t convert. The Canadiens did a great job of taking his time and space away. When he was able to get a prime scoring chance on net, Carey Price was there to shut the door.
The real pressing issue was the play of his line mate and setup man, Mitch Marner. There was a steady decline in his play and his compete level wasn’t where it needed to be. It hit rock bottom in Game 7 as he turned the puck over leading to Brendan Gallagher’s opening goal.
Marner had four assists in the series, but his decision-making and puck management came into question. There wasn’t the same confidence he exuberated when the puck was on his stick and was always second-guessing himself. He had trouble with his control and made very egregious errors. Marner previously stated that he wanted to shoot more, yet his decisions to pass up an opportunity to shoot is squandered in order to make a play became more evident in the playoffs. He did manage to score 20 goals in the regular season, however, he has yet to score a playoff goal since 2018-19.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself [to] be the best player every single night, Marner said according to TSN’s Kristen Shilton. “I felt that I wasn’t living up to my own standards and I just have to make sure that stops happening.”
It’s difficult being in Marner’s situation after finishing the season fourth in points (67) and in assists (47). You can tell that he was dejected in his post game interview and he knew he wasn’t at his best. When you’re a top paid talent making $10.9 million dollars, you have to find a way to come out on top. You’re being paid like a star and you have to play consistently like one. We did not see that this series.
It’s great that the Maple Leafs depth was scoring as William Nylander, Jason Spezza and Alexander Kerfoot were outstanding in this series. But when that’s your source for offense and your stars aren’t producing, you’re definitely in trouble and the Maple Leafs couldn’t find an answer. This was ultimately their downfall.
This is on the Players
Many will probably point the finger at general manager Kyle Dubas for this loss after making necessary moves to improve the depth and leadership of this team. However, the moves that he made in hindsight could’ve been beneficial. This loss is more on the players than him as he did what he could.
Joe Thornton looked good down the stretch of the regular season, but his age definitely caught up to him in the playoffs. Wayne Simmonds was brought in to be a physical presence. After Game 2, he didn’t do what he was supposed to do in responding with a hit or even getting involved in a fight. Foligno came back from injury, but even then his play wasn’t as great as it was in the regular season when the Maple Leafs first acquired him.
There is no one else to blame but the players themselves. There was a select few who played consistently. Nylander, Spezza, Kerfoot, T.J. Brodie and Jake Muzzin (before his injury) were outstanding, but when others aren’t on the same page and the effort is inconsistent, it’s hard to come out on top.
The players, who were brought into the lineup and bring the leadership they needed to overcome this hurdle, didn’t live up to expectations. They had the experience to help push this group forward and didn’t. The offense fizzled out, there was no push back in the most crucial game of all and the stars weren’t stars. It’s a recipe for disappointment and, once again, they have to accept it.
We heard comments from the Maple Leafs on the opportunity for them to prove every one wrong and be ready. They failed to live up to those comments and once again they, and the fans are in disbelief.
In a season where this was the best opportunity for he Maple Leafs to make a deep playoff run, they crashed and burned like they did in the past. What’s more crushing is the fact that they didn’t lose a lead in Game 7. They lost a 3-1 series lead where they had multiple opportunities to close things out. That is 10 times worse than anything else.
Give credit where it’s due, the Canadiens were the hungrier team than the Maple Leafs and it showed. With another strong season coming to a disheartening end, as we’ve said many times before, the Maple Leafs are left to find the answers to the question of what went wrong.