Why the Maple Leafs should run it back
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner (16) and teammate Auston Matthews (34) look on after being knocked out of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs on Saturday, May 14, 2022. Photo by Nathan Denette/CP

TORONTO – The way the emotions poured out was notable even with all they’ve been through and how close they came.

The 2021-22 Toronto Maple Leafs were actually cheered off the ice by those remaining inside Scotiabank Arena following the handshake line to cap a season that restored belief in the process.

Disappointing as it was, a seven-game series lost by the slimmest of margins to the NHL’s premier franchise may have been the least emotionally draining of the six straight a frothing fanbase has had to endure. The Leafs actually outscored the Tampa Bay Lightning, 24-23, over the course of two weeks and failed only to get that extra goal at the right time to play on.

They were one bounce, one favourable call or one more converted power play away from entering the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs as the likely favourite to come out of the Eastern Conference.

There was no shame to be found in the belief, in the effort or the urgency on display. They lost 2-1 in a Game 7 that saw a goal waved off by an interference penalty on Saturday night after being on the wrong end of a 4-3 Game 6 where they had the better of the overtime chances.

They couldn’t possibly have been any closer to knocking off the twice-reigning champs without doing so, which is what made the red eyes and hoarse voices seem so pronounced as the leadership group took turns trying to find answers for what kept it from happening.

“Guys competed. It’s just hard to explain,” said captain John Tavares. “It’s obviously frustrating and hard to fathom with the opportunity that we had these last two games.”

“We worked very hard all year long at practices and stuff like that to be in these games and give ourselves an opportunity,” added Mitch Marner. “We did. We just didn’t come through.”

While there is the natural inclination to draw dire conclusions while grouping this series loss with the ones that came before it, the performance against Tampa should actually distance the Leafs core from the stench of defeats to Columbus and Montreal.

Those were inferior opponents and included tepid performances from Toronto in the winner-take-all games. They left some questions about the ability of the team’s top offensive stars to elevate and planted seeds of doubt about the entire program’s ability to persevere when the playing circumstances turned less favourable.

There is no reason to be thinking like that this time, not after watching Auston Matthews lead a star-studded series in goals, points, shots, high-danger chances and hits (yes, even hits). Not after seeing Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander all deliver big moments and having Jack Campbell more than hold his own at the opposite end of the rink from Andrei Vasilevskiy after doing the same thing against Carey Price last May.

“We can debate the merits of any sort of credit that you might want to give our team, but I don’t know if you can debate anything that we would give the Tampa Bay Lightning. Who they are, what they stand for, what they’ve accomplished,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “We’re right there standing in with them. This one’s tough because I really feel that we’re a lot closer than it appears.”

Viewing the decision rationally, you absolutely run it back with this core after 54 wins, 115 points, a 60-goal, Hart Trophy-worthy campaign from Matthews and 438 minutes of playoff hockey against the Lightning where the Leafs had the champs one punch away from falling.

The task will be tall with Tavares getting another year older and still accounting for $11-million of a nearly flat cap. With an uncertain goaltending situation and Campbell eligible for unrestricted free agency in July. With Ilya Mikheyev, Colin Blackwell, Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin also able to walk away and only so much room to find capable replacements should they go.

Assuming ownership isn’t applying unneeded pressure to change for change's sake after a sixth straight year failing to get beyond the first round, why shift course now? The power dynamics in the Atlantic Division are shifting with Boston potentially aging out of contention and in danger of losing Patrice Bergeron to retirement this summer, and even the cap-strapped Lightning likely having to shed important talent.

There are no consolation prizes for nearly winning a playoff series against a behemoth, but it says something that the Leafs caught the behemoth's attention. As Steven Stamkos observed: “They have everything. It’s just we have everything, too.”

“I think they’ve grown as a group and I think their stars are stars and they’ve got a really good team game,” added Lightning coach Jon Cooper.

As much as every organization aspires to be a Chicago or a Pittsburgh or a Tampa, we can’t completely ignore the Washington example. The Capitals have qualified for the playoffs in 14 of the last 15 years and only played beyond Round 2 once – when Alex Ovechkin’s crew hung a Stanley Cup banner in 2018.

That’s all the Leafs are trying to do right now. Win once. Getting there might not require a linear path of results, especially in light of the manner they lost this latest series.

“I think we want to think that way: Like we’re moving in the right direction, like we’re getting somewhere,” said Morgan Rielly, the longest-tenured Leaf. “I think that belief was different this year within our group in terms of what we could have accomplished.”

That’s why the pain was a little more pronounced, too.

They fell behind in the last four games of the series and saw the Lightning collapse into a defensive shell around Vasilevskiy during Game 7. Tampa was credited with twice as many blocks in the final game, while Toronto ended up missing the net on more than twice as many shots.

Still, the Leafs were one shot away with the goalie pulled and an entire city’s heart in its throat. Small margins. Nylander had missed on a breakaway earlier in the night and Marner fired just wide with Vasilevskiy out of position in the frantic opening minutes.

The Toronto players were crushed and exhausted when the final buzzer sounded. The rest of the hockey world couldn’t help but take notice of the step they took.

“I mean it’s the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions right there. That’s a team that’s been through a lot as well,” said Matthews. “They’ve been through a lot of tough losses, heartbreak and they’ve found their way to the top two years in a row now.

“We’re right there, we’re right there.”

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