4 “What Ifs” that Changed the Maple Leafs’ 2022 Postseason

Leafland is in mourning following the sixth consecutive first-round playoff loss by the Toronto Maple Leafs. To make matters worse, their last five losses were in a playoff series that went the full number of games. Four of those losses came in Game 7 of a seven-game series and one was the last game of a five-game series. No team in any of the major sports that have multiple game playoff rounds has ever done that.

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A tweet by JFresh notes that the odds of that happening are 27,778 to 1.

While the Maple Leafs spent the regular season smashing franchise records in a positive way, they now have started setting records for futility in the playoffs.

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Media pundits and fans alike have been trying to wrap their brains around whether this loss was any better or worse than the others. Some claim a moral victory, stating that the Maple Leafs never quit in the series versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. They were just beaten by a better team. Others state that a loss is a loss regardless of how they did it or who they did it against. 

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We are not going to do either here. Instead, we are going to indulge ourselves in a little wishful thinking. This series was extremely close at the end and could have easily gone either way. One bounce in a different direction, one different call or non-call, one tiny little thing could have made all the difference in the series. 

What if something had gone differently?

What if #1: Erase Two Iffy High-Sticking Calls

John Tavares scored two goals in 26 seconds late in the second period of Game 6 to give the Maple Leafs a 3-2 lead and a chance to win the series going into the third period of that game. The Maple Leafs came out in the third period and did an excellent job of protecting the one-goal lead. 

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs Center John Tavares screens Tampa Bay Lightning Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

At 8:02 of the third period, David Kampf was called for high sticking on Cal Foote. Replays of the play show Kampf’s stick coming up and brushing Foote’s jersey and Foote snapping his head back, either to avoid Kampf’s stick or to try to “sell” a penalty. 

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Kampf’s stick never made contact with Foote’s face. Fifteen seconds into the penalty Victor Hedman lifted Alex Kerfoot’s stick into his own face resulting in another high-sticking call against the Maple Leafs.

What if the referee who called the first penalty had actually seen that contact was not made between Kampf’s stick and Foote’s face, and that penalty were never called. It makes sense that Kerfoot would not have been on the ice killing the penalty when he took his own high-sticking penalty. The Lightning would not have had that five-on-three man advantage and Nikita Kucherov would not have scored that goal.

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Would the Maple Leafs have held on and won that game, eliminating the Lightning?

What if #2: Matthews Doesn’t Blow a Tire in Overtime

With just over two minutes to go in the first overtime period of Game 6, Mitch Marner corrals the puck in the Maple Leafs’ zone. Both Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting break out of the zone. Marner flips a pass to Matthews at center. Matthews catches an edge and falls flat on his face. He and Bunting are caught up ice as the Lightning come back and score the game-winning goal. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes a save on Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

What if Matthews doesn’t blow that tire? He either successfully receives the pass from Marner giving he and Bunting a two-on-one; or, at the very least prevents Brandon Hagel from turning the puck the other direction.  

Do the Maple Leafs go on to score and win that game in overtime?

What if #3: The Justin Holl Penalty Wasn’t Called

At 11:28 of Game 7, Tavares grabs the puck behind the Lightning net, circles out in front of the net, and fires a shot that beats Andrei Vasilevskiy over the right shoulder to tie the game 1-1. But the goal gets called back because Justin Holl is called for interference on Anthony Cirelli. By the book what Holl did is a penalty, yet we see plays like this happen a dozen times a game with no call being made. In this case, it was.  

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What if that call is not made. When Morgan Rielly scores at 13:25 of that period it made the score 2-1 for Toronto. Even if Nick Paul does score his second goal of the game, the score is 2-2 and not 2-1 for the Lightning. Game 7 might have ended differently.

What if #4: A Lightning Goal Was Called Back for a Penalty

Vasilevskiy makes a big save on Matthews at 3:38 of the third period. Alex Killorn breaks up the ice and is taken out of the play by Jake Muzzin. As Killorn goes down, he pulls the stick out of Muzzin’s hand. Nick Paul picks up the puck and scores.  

What if that goal were called back and a penalty called on Killorn?  The score then remains 1-1. 

There Are Probably Dozens of What If’s in a Series

We realize that life (and playoff hockey) is filled with “What ifs.”  What if we had left our house one day and turned left instead of turning right? What if a butterfly didn’t flap its wings in the rainforest of Brazil? Would our lives have been profoundly different? 

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What was is what was for the Maple Leafs. The ending was sad for Maple Leafs’ faithful: another season, another first-round exit in the playoffs. 

But, we can dream, can’t we?

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]