There’s no shame in losing to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion.
For the Maple Leafs, however, the pain that hit hard late Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena will linger for a long time.
The Leafs didn’t take one shift for granted and left everything on the ice, as the saying goes, but it was not enough to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 in a 2-1 loss.
In the end, the experiences gained by the Lightning in winning back-to-back Cups was greater than the first-round losses the Leafs have endured in the past five years. It’s six years in a row now that the Leafs have not advanced to the second round.
While Tampa Bay needed goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to make large saves at times, the Lightning didn’t flinch after going down 3-2 in the series, winning the final two games.
The Leafs had 17 shots on Vasilevskiy in the third period and didn’t score on any of them. That won’t go away for a while, either.
Already giving Leafs Nation nightmares, Nick Paul nearly made it worse when he crashed into Jack Campbell four minutes into the third period. Campbell got up favouring his left leg, but after some anxious moments, remained in the game. The No. 1 priority in the off-season for Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas will be to re-sign Campbell … The Leafs had six shots on goal as Ondrej Palat served a hooking minor, which came at 6:19 of the third, but the No. 1 power play in the regular season could not get the puck past Vasilevskiy … John Tavares scored one of his prettier goals in recent memory at 8:32 of the second when he circled around the net, and a jumble of players, to snap the puck past Vasilevskiy. However, rather than the game being tied 1-1, the goal was not allowed as Justin Holl was called for interference on Anthony Cirelli. As hard as the sequence might have been for the Leafs to swallow, the call on Holl couldn’t be avoided. He threw a pick on Cirelli, and if not for that, Tavares might not have escaped the check of Cirelli … The Leafs not only killed the penalty off, they didn’t let it impact their desire. At 13:25, Morgan Rielly took a pass from Auston Matthews and ripped a shot past Vasilevskiy to get the tie the Leafs thought they had five minutes earlier … William Nylander bowled over defenceman Cal Foote to break in alone, but shot over the net … Paul scored his second goal of the game at 16:32 of the second period when he managed to get the better of TJ Brodie on a one-on-one and beat Campbell to the far side. “This is where heroes are made,” veteran Corey Perry said of Game 7s in general. “It might not be the big guy. It might be somebody that you’ve never heard of doing something that takes us to the next level.” We’ve heard of Paul, of course, but as Perry said, it was not the big guy doing it for Tampa Bay … Not long after the Paul goal, Nikita Kucherov hit the post … Unlike last year, when the Leafs lost Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens, and in the 2020 bubble when the Leafs lost a deciding Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, there was no trepidation on the part of Toronto to start the game. Nylander got it right in the morning. “I think we came out a little flat in those games,” Nylander said. “Maybe a little bit scared to lose. We don’t need to be scared to lose. We’ve got a great team.” … A Mitch Marner hit on big Victor Hedman along the corner boards in the Tampa Bay end got an already electric crowd that much more excited … The Leafs were on point from the opening faceoff, taking charge on the first several shifts. Pierre Engvall and Marner had early chances … Tavares walked past his 2009 draft pal, Hedman, to get a great opportunity that was denied by Vasilevskiy … Brayden Point was in clear pain as he hobbled directly to the dressing room at 17:11 of the first period after he fell awkwardly into the side boards. Point was favouring his right leg, and though it did not look good for the Tampa Bay forward, he returned for the second period. Point was on the ice for one shift and slammed his stick on the ice in frustration as he made his way back to the bench. He did not play again, but stayed on the bench for the remainder of the game … Despite the Leafs’ buzzing around Vasilevskiy in the first period, the Lightning got on the board first at 18:24. Paul scored on a Ross Colton rebound after Campbell made a sharp pad save. Paul was able to poke the puck into the net as Rielly’s check attempt came a split-second too late.
The Leafs were trying to become the 18th team in NHL history to eliminate the defending Cup champions in a Game 7 … Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper’s take on the Leafs in the morning, which could provide some solace for Leafs Nation: “We’re not surprised how good they are. They have been knocking at the door for so long. I think they have grown as a group, I think their stars are stars. They have a really good team game and the coach does a hell of a job preparing them. The Leafs have a hell of a team.”