This wasn’t about 18 years of futility. This wasn’t about 55 years without a Stanley Cup. This wasn’t about what may or may not have happened in the past.
This wasn’t about all the history of playoff defeat in the Maple Leafs’ past — and some will make it that way — or the frustration of blowing a 4-1 lead in Boston or a 3-1 series lead against a so-so Montreal team. Or all the Game 7 defeats of the past.
This was about one night, one game, one punch in the gut and a whole lot of frustration.
This was different, this series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it needs to be considered that way. This was two great hockey teams playing, one playoff series, one goal difference in the end, and the season of one team was about to end in horrible disappointment.
Somebody had to lose.
And, once again, that somebody was the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And that feels awful and empty and it’s terribly frustrating and it’s more disappointing because the Tampa Bay Lightning are that close — or the Leafs are that close to the champion Lightning — and having a terrific, record-breaking season lost in Game 7 after losing Game 6 in overtime and it’s easy to feel they left something on the table here.
But this team is different. And this opponent was different.
This Leafs team was emotional. This team was smart most of the time. That’s why they had the most points in Leafs history. That’s why they won the most games ever.
If you want to be disappointed today, you have every right to be. It’s alright to expect more. It’s alright to want a playoff run.
The Leafs themselves certainly feel that way. They don’t want to hear about the past. They didn’t hire John Ferguson Jr. or Brian Burke to run this team. They didn’t trade for Owen Nolan or Brian Leetch or Phil Housley. That happened when these Leafs were just kids.
But the likes of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly, who combined for the only Toronto score that wasn’t called back by officials, are feeling lousy today. This defeat wasn’t necessarily on them, or any singular player on the Leafs, but it doesn’t mean it can’t hurt. Hurt real bad.
Matthews scored the most goals in the NHL this season and the most goals in the NHL since he came into the league and the save of the night made by Andrei Vasilevskiy, the all-world goaltender, came on a Matthews shot. A goal would have given the Leafs a 2-1 lead, a lead they never had Saturday night at the Scotiabank Arena.
This is what Vasilevskiy has done his entire career in big games and big moments. He makes stops other goalies can’t make. He made the stop on Matthews.
Not long after that, the trade-deadline pickup, Nick Paul, the Mississauga kid, got the kind of bounce the Leafs didn’t seem to get on this night and put Tampa ahead 2-1. The goal seemed almost a response to the Matthews shot that didn’t score — the kind of momentum Dominik Hasek used to supply his teammates with — the shot coming not long after William Nylander had a semi-breakaway, attempted a backhand high that went over the net instead of into it.
Two Leafs chances, no goals. One Tampa chance, one goal. That’s the game. That’s the series.
Now the Leafs season is over. Now there will be hand-wringing and blaming because that’s what happens at the end of every season. So who’s to blame for the Leafs losing 2-1 when they had the highest-scoring player in hockey, the league’s best power play, and one of the most creative passers in the game? Who’s to blame for all that?
You can start with Vasilevskiy and then move to Lightning coach Jon Cooper — the best goalie in the business and the best coach in the business.
Vasilevskiy didn’t have to stop the puck all that often. The Tampa players in front of him blocked most of the shots, 26 shots in all. They took care of the front of their net the way champions usually do. They gave no room to the Leafs. They made everything difficult. This is just one of the reasons why they’ve won two Stanley Cups and are heading towards what could be a third.
The Leafs were valiant in their attempts to get pucks through, to find open players, and a little too often to overthink what to do with the puck. That’s something that has haunted this team in previous playoffs.
With all this offence, they need to produce more and they needed to get something from players other than the Big Four and Rielly on defence. That’s something they do need to improve on.
Do these Leafs care enough about another first-round defeat?
All you had to watch Matthews go through the handshake line. His eyes were almost wet. His expression was pure sadness. All the money, all the awards, all the accolades won’t buy what he wanted most on Saturday night.
This season is over. Too soon once again. This one different from any of the past 55 years. This was a team that could have been going places. They were that close. They were that real.
In the end, they were that heartbroken once again.