This year was supposed to be different. The offence was elite. The goaltending stellar. Even the usually-shoddy defence was excellent. But no — another year of hockey, another year of disappointment for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who lost their 2021 first-round series versus the Montreal Canadiens in Game 7 fashion on Monday.
As a die-hard Leafs fan for the last 25 years, this loss has a poignant sting to it that recent playoff losses have not.
Against Washington in 2017, the Leafs were underdogs. They weren’t expected to win either in 2018 or 2019 against Boston. And while the Leafs were not heavy underdogs in last year’s play-in series versus Columbus, they were certainly evenly matched (both teams had an identical 81 points in the regular season).
But this year was supposed to be different.
A Regular Season To Remember
In the off-season, the Leafs brought in 41-year-old grey-beard Joe Thornton to provide them more leadership. They brought in Scarborough-native tough-guy Wayne Simmonds to give them the physicality needed to finally get over the hump. They added 29-year-old stay-home blueliner TJ Brodie to give them a reliable partner for Morgan Rielly on the Leafs top defensive pairing. Then, at this year’s trade deadline, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas doubled down, trading a 2021 first-round pick for Nick Foligno — a solid two-way forward with both leadership and veteran experience.
After the regular season, the Leafs finished first in the newly-constructed and all-Canadian North Division with 77 points. The Canadiens finished fourth with 59 points. Entering the series against Montreal, the Leafs were the superior team in most aspects, including goal-scoring (they scored 28 more goals than the Habs) and goal-prevention (they allowed 20 fewer goals). They had star power in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — two players who were in the top five in regular-season points in the NHL. Montreal’s best point-getter…? Tyler Toffoli, who ranked 48th in the league in points.
The Leafs had also bested the Canadiens seven times out of 10 during the regular season, outscoring Montreal 34- 25 in those games.
The Leafs were finally the favourites.
The road to the Stanley Cup Finals had also never looked so clear. Due to the pandemic, the Leafs were moved from the Atlantic Division to the North Division. To reach the final four, the Leafs would not have to go through the rough-and-tough Boston Bruins or reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning — their normal path to the semis. Had they beat Montreal and then Winnipeg — their waiting-in-the-wings second-round matchup — they would have been a coin-flip away from reaching their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1967.
Not only have Boston and Tampa Bay combined for 16 playoff round wins over the last six years, but they have some of the game’s most elite players. Tampa Bay has former- Vezina winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevsky (.925 save percentage in the regular season) and former James Norris Memorial winning defenceman Victor Hedman (45 points in 54 games). Boston has the “Perfection Line”— a combination of speed and skill in Brad Marchand (69 points), Patrice Bergeron (48 points), and David Pastrňák (48 points).
Avoiding Boston or Tampa until the Final Four (as opposed to rounds one and two) seems like a golden opportunity wasted for the Leafs, who have not won a playoff series since 2004 — ironically, a game 7 win over Ottawa in Round One.
Another Heartbreak Series
Through the first four games of the series, the Leafs had near-total control and breezed to a 3-1 lead, outscoring Montreal 13-4. Game 4 was arguably their most dominant win of the entire season: a 4-0 shutout on the backs of goaltender Jack Campbell, who notched his first-ever playoff shutout, and winger Alex Galchenyuk, who had three points against the team that had drafted him third overall in 2012.
But then came the choke-job.
In Game 5, Montreal outshot the Leafs 14-8 in the first period and, eventually, took a 3-0 lead in the early goings of the second. But the Leafs came back and tied it, thanks to two goals from defenceman, Jake Muzzin.
One goal away! “Whoever scores this goal will be remembered in Leafs lore for years to come,” I told my family.
But the moment never came.
In Game 6, the Habs outshot the Leafs 15-9 in the first period, and would go on to take a 2-0 lead midway into the third. The Leafs would tie it again with two goals in the final eight-and-a-half minutes.
One goal away! “Whoever scores this goal will be remembered in Leafs lore for years to come,” I screamed again.
But the moment never came.
Then, Game 7 came…and went. After so many playoff failures, you would have thought that the memory of losing would be permanently scarred into the brains of these players. You would have thought this team would have shown a certain killer instinct, playing with their season on the line. You would have thought the star players would really show up and score big goals in big moments. You would have thought there would be a little more fight in that dog.
But the moment never came.
The Leafs lost Game 7 by a 3-1 score, thanks to star power invisibility and some incredible goaltending by Montreal’s Carey Price (a .931 series save percentage and a whopping 6.13 goals saved above average). According to Matthews’ 0.788 goals-per-game regular-season pace, he should have had at least 5 goals in this series. He only had one. Marner should have had 2 goals at his regular-season scoring rate, but he had none. Of course, the Leafs were without captain John Tavares after sustaining a Game 1 injury, but there still was plenty of depth to propel the Leafs into Round Two.
The slick-shooting William Nylander had a team-high eight points and five goals. Thirty-seven-year-old Torontonian Jason Spezza had three goals and five points. Campbell, who started all seven games in net, posted a sparkling .934 save percentage and gave the Leafs a chance to win the series.
But with the stars not showing up, an ineffective powerplay (2-24 or 8.3%, well below the 2021 regular season league average of 19.8%), and multiple avoidable mistakes (including Galchenyuk’s offensive zone blind pass in game 5 and Travis Dermott’s defensive zone turnover in game 6), the Leafs extended their drought of not having won a series in the post-season to 17 years — second only to Florida’s drought of a quarter century.
As a Leafs fan, having a 3-1 series snatched away is like being on a roller coaster…except, you never get to feel that vivacious rush of the rollercoaster descending from hundreds of feet in the air. Instead, you reach the top and the ride just stops. Sitting at the climax, you feel that nervous excitement in anticipation of the elation that’s about to come.
But then, you don’t move forward…you move backwards. Slowly and unceremoniously.
Eventually, the ride makes its way back to the start, almost like the ride never really even got started. You feel mad because the ride operators never allowed you to feel that ultimate high. You feel let down because you were so close to experiencing the rush, but it never came. You feel upset because you let yourself get worked up for nothing. Then, as you exit the lineup, you see that the roller coaster is now working. Riders get to the top and scream as they plummet at speeds over 100 km/hr.
“Maybe next year that’ll be us,” you tell yourself.
Maybe. Or perhaps another choke.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that the Leafs have tantalized their fans with the prospects of moving into round two. Just last year, the Leafs trailed 2-1 in a best-of-five play-in series to Columbus. Trailing 4-1 in Game 4, the Leafs would score three goals in the final four minutes to force overtime…where they would win it. Only to then lose in a decisive Game 5 by a score of 3-0.
In 2019 they had a 3-2 first-round series lead, only to lose in Game 7 to Boston. In 2018, they had a 4-3 lead heading into the third period in yet another Game 7 against Boston. Twenty minutes away from a first-round series win but, no, they found a way to lose that, too. And I’m not going to talk about their 2014 series against Boston. That happened 7 years ago, but is still an open wound for me that will likely never heal.
Boy, do they tempt you. They dangle that carrot right in front of your face, only to rip your heart out.
Still, though, I’m optimistic about the future. The Leafs offensive core of Marner (age 24; signed through 2025), Matthews (age 23; signed through 2024), Tavares (age 30; signed through 2025), and Nylander (age 25; signed through 2024) is the type of foundation most general managers would relish. Defensively, the Leafs have a strong core of Morgan Rielly (age 27; signed through 2022), TJ Brodie (age 30; signed through 2024), and Jake Muzzin (age 32; signed through 2024). Jack Campbell, who played terrifically both in the regular season and during the playoffs, has another year left on his contract at a paltry $1,650,000.
Considering the Leafs were in the top 10 both in goals and goals against this season, I expect the Leafs to continue their regular-season success next year. But can they translate that to any type of playoff success?
Who knows. Perhaps, one day, I’ll actually be able to go all the way down on the rollercoaster.
Until then, more pain.