If the Hockey Hall of Fame had a Believe It Or Not exhibit, team photos of the Maple Leafs, circa 2018-22, would showcase the best team never to win a first round series.
They were denied again Saturday, with an entire ‘nation’ around Scotiabank Arena a tantalizing 60 minutes from celebration mode, and briefly tied in the second period, hoping to release 18 years of playoff angst since they last advanced.
But a 115-point club composed of the possible Hart and Ted Lindsay winner, an all-star right winger, goals galore and a solid up-tempo style ran into a two-time Stanley Cup champion unwilling to yield its throne.
The Lightning’s 2-1 win, hanging on with the net empty, sent it on to the conference semi-final against the Florida Panthers and the Leafs to the wrong side of the handshake line and another unwelcome early summer.
It was the ninth time since 2018 the Leafs’ core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly had lost a potential elimination match.
While neither team had a significant injury in the series, up to Saturday, top liner Brayden Point fell awkwardly late in the first period and limped to the Tampa dressing room. He came back, but no further than the Bolts’ bench the rest of the night.
That would be no advantage for the Leafs as Tampa was able to get on the board moments after the injury, Nick Paul in perfect position for a rebound of Ross Colton’s shot with Campbell stretched out of position.
Tavares thought he’d tied it in the middle period, but Justin Holl was given a 50-50 interference penalty for cutting off a Tampa defender in pursuit of the Leaf captain.
Rielly converted properly after Campbell made spectacular saves on the Holl power play, taking a Matthews drop pass and beating Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Nylander nearly beat the Russian up top again on a partial break in the same period, but he was solid the rest of the night.
Paul, born in nearby Mississauga, provided the lead again before the frame ended, when Jake Muzzin was knocked over at the blueline and he was able to burst in and beat Campbell. In the third, Paul shook up the goalie on a rush to the net, but Campbell skated off the sore leg after a few seconds. Matthews was also banged up in the end.
The Leafs No. 1-ranked power play was 0-for-3 Saturday and not the difference it could have been in the series.
Downtown Toronto on Saturday evening came closest to the best Game 7 atmosphere in a Leaf home game since they met the Los Angeles Kings in 1993. But that, too, was a loss following a Game 6 overtime defeat.
And now comes another long off-season.
Since losing to Montreal last May, it was in many critics’ heads that general manager Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe were done if the Leafs failed to get out of the first round a sixth straight time and that someone from the ‘Core Four’ forwards had to go.
That stark option waned as the Leafs became season-long crowd pleasers, set many team and individual records and filled SBA when COVID-19 rules eased, not to mention these four lucrative home playoff dates.
Most of Dubas’s early roster miscalculations were fixed by the trade deadline, though the Leafs still remain short of blueline depth.
Campell could become a free agent and if any of the core four aren’t moved, it’s likely winger Ilya Mikheyev’s time is done as money must be found for the goalie.
Decisions must also be made on UFA forwards Jason Spezza, who will be 39 this summer and defencemen Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano. Spezza, Giordano and Wayne Simmonds were 1,000-game veterans looking to end their personal Cup droughts.
Coach Jon Cooper’s Lightning, meanwhile, now seek a different kind of history. Where winning just one Cup in the salary cap era is a challenge, they’re now 12 wins away from three consecutive, during which time they have a record of 17-0 in games following a loss.
“It’s been exhilarating,” Cooper said before Game 7. “I look back and 2019 doesn’t seem too long ago, but in essence it was over three years and since we had that heartbreak (a Presidents’ Trophy season ending in a stunning four-game sweep by Columbus) and we never really looked back.
“I’ve seen these guys in every adversity possible and they’ve found a way to emerge. Has it been taxing? It has, not really physically, but probably mentally. To get up every single day and fight through things when you might say ‘you know what? We’ve done it and it’s okay if we don’t (repeat)’.
“But these guys won’t accept that. It’s been pretty impressive. It’s been a blast these past three year and as I’ve told them, our story is not finished being written.”
Cooper wants to see them established as the first dominant team of the 2020s, as Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles were in the 2010s.
It’s something the Leafs can only dream about right now.