Leafs’ Stanley Cup drought continues after crushing Game 7 loss

John Tavares could barely make eye contact as he summed up his emotions. Auston Matthews’s head was also lowered and he spoke quietly and in short sentences. Jason Spezza had been seen on the ice crying as the game ended.

That is the agony of defeat.

And follow the Maple Leafs into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“We’re sick and tired of feeling like this,” winger Mitch Marner said. “This is going to hurt a little.”

Another season of high expectations and amazing regular season accomplishments ended in disappointment. Just when you thought they couldn’t lose a Game 7 again, not with the home crowd behind them this time, they did.

“The boys competed. It is difficult to explain. It’s obviously frustrating. Difficult to understand,” said Tavares. “We didn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve. It itches. It hurts. It’s disappointing.

The Maple Leafs continue to play on the emotions of their loyal fans, edging tantalizingly close to winning a round, certainly a modicum of glory in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and coming up short.

On Saturday night, they put on a much more spirited performance than in other elimination games, but the Tampa Bay Lightning went too far, winning 2-1 in the lowest-scoring game of the series.

“It’s a game of inches. Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of things tonight,” Matthews said. “It’s really frustrating. It’s really disappointing. All the guys there competed and gave it their all. In the end, they made one more move than us and were able to win the game.”

It was Nick Paul, a trade deadline acquisition and GTHL product, who was once traded for Spezza and used to attend Leafs games with the Domi family, who got the Leafs in. He scored both goals in the Lightning’s ninth playoff series win in a row, as they chase their third straight Stanley Cup.

“(The Leafs are) a great hockey team, no question about it,” Tampa center Steve Stamkos said. “They have all the pieces. It’s just not easy this time of year. That’s one of the hardest series we’ve ever played. They have it all. It’s just that we also have everything.”

No team has won the Cup three times in a row since the New York Islanders won four between 1979 and 1982. They’ll have to beat the Panthers in the Battle of Florida to move on.

“We’re standing here on the cusp of greatness, and why the hell don’t we charge through that door?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Not only have the Leafs gone 56 years without a Cup win, the longest active drought in the NHL, they still haven’t won a round since 2004.

“The result was disappointing,” said Morgan Rielly, the Leaf’s sole scorer. “There were good things that happened this year. As players we want to keep playing, win a playoff series for our fans. Right now, the feeling is the same (losing last year). The result is the same, which is very disappointing.

“We are moving in the right direction. We are getting somewhere… There was a lot of faith in our group.”

gaining respect

All the accolades from the regular season — Matthews’ 60-goal season, 115 points, a franchise-best — seem moot now.

Even the fact that its stars played better in the playoffs, setting personal records, seems pointless. But for the record, Matthews had four goals and five assists, Rielly had three goals and three assists. Marner had two goals and six assists.

The playoff effort was much better. But forward movement is too slow.

“We got a lot of respect on that line (handshake) from his team, which was nice to see. There was a very different tone and a very different feeling of respect on the other side than we’ve experienced previously,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We are certainly earning respect in the league. But then again, we’re not in that respect game. We are in the winning game.”

homemade ice

The Leafs have had home ice in such situations before, but never to a packed Scotiabank Arena. The Columbus loss was in front of empty stands, and the loss to Montreal was played in front of 550 first responders due to pandemic restrictions.

This time, a packed stadium (19,316) and an overflow crowd filled with fanatical supporters and nervous nellies went home disappointed. It was the ninth straight time they had failed to close the deal since losing 7-4 in Game 7 in Boston on April 25, 2018. The team has been through a lot of changes since then. Only Matthews, Marner, Rielly and William Nylander remain from that team that lost to Boston.

But the results have been the same: They went up three games to two, then lost Games 6 and 7 against Boston in 2019. They lost the decisive Game 5 to Columbus in the shortest best-of-five qualifying round in 2020. And somehow find a way to blow a 3-game lead against Montreal last year.

This time, they were up three games to two in Tampa.

“It feels different. It hurts a little more, to be honest,” Keefe said. “This one hurts more because this was a really good team that really played hard. And the fact that you’re so close against that team, this one is tough, because I really feel like we’re a lot closer than it seems.”

There will be calls for layoffs and swaps. The players themselves will spend another spring wondering what could have been, while the Leafs’ management will have to deal with another transfer season under a restrictive salary cap with the likes of Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev, Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin entering free agency. no restrictions.

Error free

In a series where arbitration was almost as important as the teams themselves, the Leafs might be entitled to feel bad about some of the calls against them.

In Game 6, it was a phantom high post that led to Tampa scoring the power play goal that forced overtime and brought the series back to Toronto for Game 7.

Then, in the second period on Saturday, for one goal, the Leafs had a goal canceled because Justin Holl was called for play interference. It was as strange a call as there have been. Tavares skated around Holl, using him as a block, to free himself from Anthony Cirelli, who ended up skating toward the Leafs big defenseman.

That disallowed the goal and put Tampa on a power play, which the Leafs killed.

Rielly scored soon after, on a delivery by Matthews, to tie the game 1-1.

Paul scored the opening goal, finishing off a two-on-one in a first period that was largely error-free on both sides and dominated by shot-blocking. After Rielly’s goal, Paul scored again in the second to give Tampa a 2-1 lead entering the third period.

“We knew this going into the series, that going into third periods against this team was going to be a challenge,” Keefe said. “They are the number one team in the NHL when it comes to limiting opportunities against them in the third period, the entire regular season. That is the hallmark of their success. That’s championship hockey.”

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