The bar for the Leafs couldn’t be lower. something has to give

You can try to explain the endless cycle of failure from a thousand angles. But let’s start with this.

The Auston Matthews-era Toronto Maple Leafs have now lost in nine straight attempts to clinch a first playoff series since 2004, the longest streak of postseason futility in the NHL. And in the midst of those nine losses, including Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena, the Leafs’ power play is headed for another early break amid a cold 0-for-18 streak. .

Oh-by-18. Woe to this team!

Think about that for a second. In these repetitive moments of franchise-defining frustration, time and time again the Leafs have found themselves desperate for a game-changing goal. And time and time again, his power play has failed to provide it. This year, the power play that led the league with a 27 percent efficiency in the regular season, the highest mark in franchise history, became moot when it mattered.

That is more than significant. Because in Toronto, the power play isn’t just another special team. It is the essence of the team.

Most of the time, it includes the franchise’s top five players: forwards Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, along with defenseman Morgan Rielly. In the current think tank’s total commitment to racking up skill after skill, that quintet accounts for more than half of the team’s salary cap.

But as much as those five have been a big reason for Toronto’s many regular-season successes, they’re also the line through the recurring nightmare of postseason stumbles. Maybe it tells you something about the wisdom of devoting so many team resources to a core so easily neutralized under the playoff microscope.

Forget the power game. In five attempts at winner-take-all playoff games, Matthews and Marner have combined for a grand total of zero goals on all strengths. In nine possible series deciders, all defeats, the four centre-forwards have a combined six goals.

If that’s the Leafs putting their balls in play, someone’s rear end should be in a sling.

Of course, there are those who won’t hear such blasphemy from Toronto’s prodigies. Fair enough. Perhaps you prefer to blame the referees. Toronto’s attempts to close out their latest series came with controversial calls in Games 6 and 7. Most egregious was a potential Game 7 goal by Tavares disallowed because Toronto defenseman Justin Holl helped free Tavares with a illegal screen worthy of eluding details. great basketball man Who knew that NHL referees are now enforcing the NBA rule book?

And perhaps this loss was different from the others in another way. The Leafs tried hard and played well, after all — a basic job description presented by some as a silver lining of newfound virtue. And let’s not underestimate the greatness of the superior opponent.

“The fact that you’re so close against that team…” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “You can debate the merits of any kind of credit that you want to give our team, but I don’t know if you can debate anything that you give to the Tampa Bay Lightning and who they are.”

To be fair, that gear wasn’t so much the Lightning as it was the Lightning Lite. It was the two-time defending champions largely without Brayden Point, who played a second period at-bat and had to recover after suffering an undisclosed injury. It was the two-time defending champions with a clearly diminished Nikita Kucherov who, according to a tweet from TSN hockey expert Darren Dreger, had not been feeling well in Games 6 and 7. It was the two-time defending champions with an overworked goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who posted a disappointing .897 save percentage in the series. It was the two-time defending champions running around smoky and ready to be taken.

And in the grand scheme of Toronto’s litany of failures, are opponents really the problem? A season ago they lost to the worst team in the NHL playoffs as measured by regular season points. The previous year they lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets. In the years before that, the unbeatable bogeymen were Boston and Washington.

This is a league where the underdogs often win, where surprises happen, where chaos reigns. Except in Toronto, where the pathos is as predictable as it is perennial.

It wouldn’t be a Leafs moment of infamy without a twist of the knife. The same weekend, the Florida Panthers ended what was previously the NHL’s longest first-round playoff drought by dispatching Washington, and they did so with former Leafs prospect Carter Verhaeghe scoring three goals. straight to win the game over a former Cup champion. Sadly for Toronto fans, hockey’s key goalscorer of the moment was traded in 2015 as part of the prospect package that brought in Michael Grabner, who lasted one season as Leaf .

Even the Oilers, who have done their best to squander the best years of top talent Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, won a series over the weekend. McDavid has now been to the second round twice, which, to a Toronto ear, sounds dynastic.

Thats the reality. The bar, for Toronto, couldn’t be lower. No one reasonably expected this team to end the longest Stanley Cup drought in NHL history, 55 years and counting. Cup-winning teams are full of players who grab games by the throat; on Saturday, the Leafs’ passive strategy seemed to be based on the hope of a lucky rebound.

Still, it seems like a small question to occasionally get lucky on first-round success. It seems like no team loses like this Leafs team does.

Consider this: According to Stats Inc., the Leafs became the first team in NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball history to lose a winner-take-all game in the first round of the postseason in five consecutive seasons.

Perhaps that tells the optimists that they are on the verge of a breakthrough. Perhaps it is an argument to repeat it, to announce the Lightning, to blame the referees, to keep the faith. I would do that just by viewing this most recent season in isolation and ignoring the glaring, undeniable patterns: an 0-9 record in potential playoff winners, a cold 0-for-18 streak with a one-man lead at the cusp. playoff advance.

It’s like former Leafs coach Mike Babcock said: “Our power play is our toughness.” That was a code list mockery of what Babcock really meant, which was: You can’t build a playoff contender on the foundation of five guys who are defined, first and foremost, by skill sets that shine brightest on the regular season.

Babcock was convinced of this years ago. And since the results haven’t changed since then, the question for team president Brendan Shanahan is this: How many times do you wince at the same bitter taste before you admit the mix isn’t right?

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