Leafs Stanley Cup drought continues after crushing Game 7 loss

Not yet. They couldn’t lose a Game 7 anymore. Not with the home crowd behind them this time.

But they did.

The Maple Leafs continue to toy with the emotions of their loyal fans, coming temptingly close to winning a run — admittedly a small modicum of Stanley Cup playoff glory — and failing.

On Saturday night, they put on a much more spirited performance than in other elimination games, but the Tampa Bay Lightning were just too much, earning a 2-1 victory in the lowest-rated game of the series.

It was Nick Paul – a trade deadline acquisition and GTHL product, who was once traded for Jason Spezza and used to attend Leafs games with the Domi family – who brought in the Leafs. He scored both goals in the Lightning’s ninth straight playoff win as they chase their third straight Stanley Cup.

“We stand here at the dawn of greatness, and why the hell wouldn’t we charge through this door?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said earlier today.

No team has won the Cup three times in a row since the New York Islanders won four from 1979 to 1982. They will have to beat the Panthers in the Battle of Florida for that to continue.

Morgan Rielly scored for the Leafs, assisted by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Jack Campbell faced 25 shots.

“The result was disappointing,” said Rielly, the longest-serving Leaf. “There have been some good things that have happened this year. As players we want to keep playing, win a playoff series for our fans. Right now the feeling is the same (as losing last year). The result is the same, which is very disappointing.

“We are going in the right direction. We are getting somewhere… There was a lot of confidence in our group.

All regular-season accolades — Matthews’ 60-goal season, a franchise-best 115 points — now seem moot.

“It’s really frustrating, really disappointing,” Matthews said. “Every guy competed and gave their all. They made a game more than us. It was a game of thumbs; It didn’t go far.

“They are back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. They were also very thorough. We are right there.

Not only have the Leafs not won the Cup in 56 years – the longest active drought in the NHL – they still haven’t won a single set since 2004.

“Hard to understand,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish. It stings, it hurts… we have not managed to overcome this obstacle.

Home ice cream

The Leafs have had home ice in such situations before, but never with a crowded Scotiabank Arena. Columbus’ loss was played in front of empty stands and the loss to Montreal was played in front of 550 first responders due to pandemic restrictions.

This time a packed arena (19,316) and an overflowing crowd filled with fanatical fans and nervous nellys went home disappointed. It was the ninth straight time they failed to complete the deal since losing 7-4 in Game 7 at Boston on April 25, 2018. The team has gone through many changes since then. Only Matthews, Marner, Rielly and William Nylander remain from that team which lost to Boston.

But the results were the same: three games to two, then losing games 6 and 7 to Boston in 2019. Losing decisive game 5 to Columbus in the shorter best-of-five qualifying round in 2020. And somehow finding a way to blow a three-game lead against Montreal last year.

This time they were leading three games to two in Tampa.

There will be calls for layoffs and trades. The players themselves will spend another spring wondering what could have been, while Leafs management will face another signing season under a restrictive salary cap with players such as Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev, Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin entering unrestricted free agency.

“They’re a great hockey team, no doubt about it,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “They have all the parts. It’s not easy this time of year…

“It’s one of the toughest series we’ve played. They have everything. It’s just that we have everything too.

Close series

In the first six games, there wasn’t much to choose between the teams. They looked as much alike as their blue and white uniforms.

Before Saturday’s game, both teams talked about what drives them. The Leafs have recalled their first-round disappointments in the past.

“We came out a little flat in those games, maybe a little scared to lose. We don’t need to be afraid of losing,” Nylander said. “Like, we have a great team.”

Lightning coach Jon Cooper had a different approach.

“There is always fear for me. The fear of losing is greater than my desire to win. Being afraid of losing is a great motivation.

Without error

In a series where officiating was almost as much a part of the story as the teams themselves, the Leafs might have every right to feel aggrieved by some of the appeals against them.

In Game 6, it was a phantom high stick that led Tampa to score the power-play goal that forced overtime and brought the series back to Toronto for Game 7.

Then in the second period on Saturday, down one goal, the Leafs had a goal recalled because Justin Holl was called for interference on the play. It was as bizarre a call as there was. John Tavares skated around Holl, using him as a block, to get rid of Anthony Cirelli, who ended up skating into the tall Leafs defenseman.

That canceled the goal and put Tampa on the power play, which the Leafs killed.

Rielly scored soon after, on a pass from Matthews, to tie the game 1-1.

Paul scored the opening goal, finishing a two-on-one in a first half that was largely error-free on both sides and dominated by shot blocking. After Rielly’s goal, Paul scored again in the second to give Tampa a 2-1 lead early in the third period.

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