Maple Leafs left searching for answers after another opening-round playoff exit

·4 min read

Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan sounded an optimistic tone about the team's future Wednesday as the players searched for answers after coming up painfully short in the playoffs despite a strong regular season. 

"As horrible and as devastated as we feel today that we've let people down, we are not going to stop until we accomplish this," Shanahan said. "We are going to do this here in Toronto with this group. There will be changes that will be made. There will be tweaks along the way of course.

"The team will evolve, the people will evolve. But we are going to get this done."

Toronto built a 3-1 lead on Montreal in the first-round series before dropping three straight games to the Canadiens. Montreal won Games 5 and 6 in overtime and eliminated the Maple Leafs with a 3-1 win on Monday night at Scotiabank Arena.

"We didn't close," said forward Wayne Simmonds. "I think good teams, when they smell blood, they finish (opponents) off right away."

Several players who appeared on a season-ending video call with media Wednesday morning mentioned not "starting on time" in some playoff games, a reference to a lack of urgency from puck drop. The Maple Leafs did well to force OT in both games before the decider, but had difficulty playing at a consistent pace for a full 60 minutes.

It was the fifth straight year that the Maple Leafs failed to make it out of the opening round.

"This one hurts the most," said forward Zach Hyman. "It's the most heartbreaking out of all of them. There are no excuses, there's nothing you can point to. It's just we didn't get the job done."

Playoff expectations were higher this time around after Toronto finished first in the North Division standings. 

The Maple Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967. Toronto's last playoff series victory came in 2004.

"We were excited to play in the playoffs in an opportunity to erase history and push past it," said head coach Sheldon Keefe. "We obviously failed to deliver on that. We own that."

Shanahan, who appeared on a late-afternoon video call with Keefe and GM Kyle Dubas, said that he believes in the team's core, which includes the well-paid quartet of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, captain John Tavares and William Nylander.

"I think any team in the league would love to have any one of them, but we want them," Shanahan said. "We like them and we want to keep them here. They're special players and they're all deeply, deeply committed to winning here in Toronto and it's important for us as a management group to continue to develop them."

Matthews and Marner excelled in the regular season but were rather muted in the playoffs. Toronto's power play was largely ineffective and the Canadiens capitalized on the Leafs' mistakes.

"No one is feeling good about this, it's awful," Marner said. "We all wanted a better result. Obviously what we didn't accomplish (created) a really (crappy) feeling."

Injuries to Tavares and defenceman Jake Muzzin didn't help matters, but Toronto's lack of killer instinct late in the series proved costly. The Maple Leafs simply didn't have the necessary jump when they needed it in Game 7. 

"The teams that go the farthest play the hardest and they grind teams down," said Muzzin. "We have to learn from this and take it going forward that we need to do that more. 

"We can't be easy to play against or it won't get done in the playoffs."

A team that often wowed with its firepower in the regular season seemed afraid to take chances in the post-season. Rather than put the Canadiens away, the Maple Leafs seemed almost intimidated by the moment.

"We've had painful lessons here over the years," Dubas said. "The lessons are repeated until they're learned and I think we're getting to that point now."

Meanwhile, Montreal netminder Carey Price showed how it was done. With a steady, confident, been-there-before demeanour, he displayed the big-game focus he's known for and his teammates fed off it. 

The Canadiens got results and the Maple Leafs were left wondering what happened. 

"I think that there's belief in the group and I think that there's good things that happened over the course of the season that we have to build on, carry over and keep," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "And then ultimately when it comes to playoffs, I think that we do have to learn some hard lessons. I think that happens over time by losing. 

"I think it hurts and you learn and you move forward. As a group we have to be able to do that."

Toronto has several players who are set to become unrestricted free agents this summer, most notably Hyman and goaltender Frederik Andersen. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2021. 

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press