TORONTO — If the previous ones stung, this one devastated.
Despite demonstrating fire, fight, and many of the important winning intangibles that they hadn't in previous first-round exits, the Toronto Maple Leafs still fell short in their desperate efforts to win a postseason series, falling 2-1 versus the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 on Saturday night.
Nick Paul scored both goals for the Lightning, while Andrei Vasilevskiy extended his exceptional run of resiliency in elimination scenarios, making 24 saves. Morgan Rielly's second period goal on Vasilevskiy serves as, rather remarkably, the only one the superstar netminder has allowed in his last six series-clinching games for Tampa Bay.
The Lightning will move on to meet the Florida Panthers in the second round in a rematch from last season after narrowly seizing their ninth consecutive postseason series victory.
But even in pursuit of a title trio, the Leafs' latest failure in an elimination scenario remains the top storyline.
Its run of futility extending beyond reasonable proportions, Toronto is now 0-8 in chances to advance in the Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner era, losing in the first round, or first series, in six consecutive postseason appearances. This while the franchise itself hasn't celebrated a series victory in 18 years, and not since the NHL's lockout in 2004-05.
While history does, in many ways, weigh on the current team, the raw and visceral emotions following the game were reserved for one another, and the fans who have stuck by the group after six seasons of accumulating disappointment.
To suggest that Matthews, Marner, Rielly and captain John Tavares were broken up by the loss would be putting it beyond lightly.
"It's hard to explain," Tavares said, trying to find words to describe his outward pain. "It's obviously frustrating. Hard to fathom, still."
What is most painful is the potential.
The Maple Leafs set a single-season franchise record for points in a regular season, exceeding their previous total by five wins. They earned home-ice in the first round. They stood toe-to-toe with the best team in the history of the NHL's salary cap era. It's exceedingly possible that they are one of the two or three very best teams in the entire league.
Yet, the end result is no better than each of the previous five postseason exits.
While it was clearly too soon for reflection, the Leafs do recognized that there are positives — even when they have to be immediately couched.
"There are lots of reasons to be proud," head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "There are lots of reasons to be devastated."
What was most commendable was Toronto's performance inside the 60 minutes.
Unlike previous exits, Toronto's best players left it all out on the ice. Matthews and Marner led a fight to the bitter end — to the point that it was almost surprising to see the Leafs not find an equalizer.
What put them in the chase position was another back-breaking goal near the tail-end of the first period. In a replay of Game 2, momentum swung in Tampa Bay's failure after the Leafs failed to cash in on a strong start.
An unfortunate deflection off Rielly's outstretched stick forced goaltender Jack Campbell into pushing a rebound out into space for Paul to pounce on.
It looked like the Maple Leafs had an equalizer near the halfway mark of the second. However, with a decision that will be dissected and not-soon forgotten in the market, referee Eric Furlatt whistled Justin Holl for interference as John Tavares stepped around the collision and unloaded a wrist shot past Vasilevskiy.
A celebration ensued, but was short-lived with Holl headed to the penalty box.
While controversial even without the context of far fewer infractions called to that point after the officials had set a stringiest standard league-wide, Holl did clearly assist his captain, who turned the corner with possession in the offensive zone while Anthony Cirelli was picked.
they called off the goal because Holl interfered with someone pic.twitter.com/EamJpjtv7F
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 15, 2022
Toronto would produce an equalizer shortly after Holl's penalty was killed when Marner and Matthews combined to set up Rielly for a beautiful finish in transition.
MORGAN RIELLY 🚨
THAT ONE COUNTS! WHAT A SHOT pic.twitter.com/VFbjMpWp4b
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 15, 2022
Life returned to the building in the moments after Rielly's goal, and Marner and Matthews nearly combined for another moment of magic in the offensive zone just a few minutes later. But after Vasilevskiy made a brilliant blocker stop to thwart the best of Matthews' game-high six individual scoring chances, the Lightning turned back up ice on another seemingly harmless rush.
While one of the few players on the Lightning without a Stanley Cup ring was, perhaps not coincidentally, a force throughout virtually every shift, Paul once again benefitted from a fortunate bounce to score the eventual game winner.
It seemed as though Brodie knocked it away from Paul on the two-on-two rush, but the puck landed at the forward's feet, for him to kick back up and fire in one motion around Campbell.
"It's a game of inches," Matthews repeated several times his emotional post-game press conference.
Toronto did take a moment after the Paul goal to unpack another unfortunate moment, seeing its performance sag momentarily, but, and somewhat predictably when considering score effects, the Leafs steamed downhill on the Lightning from that moment on.
In the third period alone, the Leafs had 33 total shot attempts, 20 scoring chances, and five high-danger looks.
None of which would produce the goal that their season hinged on.
There's a video montage that airs inside Scotiabank Arena in the lead-up to virtually every Leafs' home game, which blends highlights from the past with those of the present. Footage of Rielly delivering unanswered blows to the head of Jan Rutta is evidence that new clips are spliced in all the time.
But regardless of the imaging, the sentiment is the same in the video — which has been used for the last several seasons. It's about restoring the good name of the franchise, and returning to its rightful place in the hierarchy.
And on nights like this one, it's impossible to ignore the last few inspiring, deliberate and even a touch arrogant words from the song — Ron Hawkins' "Peace and Quiet" — that accompanies the visuals.
"This time we'll get it right."
What remains true, and would have many fans convinced that the franchise is indeed cursed, is that despite doing most things right, it couldn't, in fact, get it right.
The reality is that the Lightning remain the standard, and that the Leafs fall somewhere beneath them — perhaps as close as immediately beneath.
Not that proximity matters.
What matters is the result, and what's fair are the questions that will be asked up until this time next season.
Notwithstanding: Will they ever get it right?
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