In what has become a springtime ritual in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs have once more been unceremoniously booted out of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round.
The talent-laden Leafs received another participation ribbon after losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1, in Game 7 Saturday night (May 14) in Toronto, two days after the Lightning forced a seventh game by beating the Leafs 4-3 in overtime.
Toronto was the number-two seed from the Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division heading into the playoffs. Tampa Bay—which has won consecutive Stanley Cups and is aiming to become the first "threepeat" champion since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983—was the third seed. (The Montreal Canadiens hold the record for consecutive championships at five, from 1956 to 1960.)
Saturday evening, Tampa's Nick Paul scored both goals for his new team after failing to pick up any tallies in the series' first six games (he joined Tampa from the Ottawa Senators late in the season). After scoring late in the first period, he scored another in the second about three minutes after Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly had tied it up.
That was all the scoring in the tight, hard-fought tilt, with Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy stopping 30 of Toronto's 31 shots and the Leafs' Jack Campbell managing to block 23 of the 25 that he faced.
Tampa Bay star forward Brayden Point fell into the boards a minute before Paul scored his first goal and had to leave the ice. Point did not return to the game but stayed on the bench for the remainder of the match.
Toronto, which has not made it to the second round of the playoffs since 2004, has now lost in the first round six seasons in a row.
With the victory, Tampa has won nine straight playoff series.
The Maple Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup since the 1967-68 season, when they beat the Montreal Canadiens, four games to two.
Tampa captain Steven Stamkos told media after the game that the series was basically a toss-up. "We found a way to just grind and grind," he said. "It could have gone either way, though."
The veteran Stamkos—who finished the regular season with 104 points and who has two goals and two assists so far in the playoffs—praised fallen teammate Point. "He's a warrior. He's a guy who's the heart and soul of our team; he's a big-game player."
Toronto captain John Tavares, who had a goal disallowed in the second period, said after the game that the defeat was "hard to explain. It's hard to fathom. At the end of the day, we didn't accomplish what we wanted to acomplish."
"It stings," the veteran centre and four-year Maple Leaf added. "It hurts; it's disappointing. There's certainly no doubt that belief [in the Leafs' ability to win] in the locker room is strong. We want to go all the way, but we can't seem to get past this first hurdle here."
Leafs forward Mitch Marner, who tallied eight points in the seven games, didn't mince words after the defeat. "This is going to sting for quite a while," he said. "We're getting sick and tired of feeling like this.
"We work really hard all year to get to these games and give ourselves an opportunity..." Marner went on. "It's just unfortunate that we couldn't pull it off for our guys."
Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper emphasized the strengths of both teams afterward. "That was as evenly matched a series as you are going to see," he said.
Cooper, a Prince George, B.C., native who is currently the longest-tenured head coach in the NHL at 10 years, said that Point getting injured in the first period was a key motivation for his players, who went into a defensive mindset for the rest of the game, checking and blocking shots. "When Pointer got hurt, it seemed to lock the entire team in, and we never looked back," he said.
"Basically, all 20 guys," he praised, "you might as well put 88 [goalkeeper Vasilevskiy's number] on all their backs."
Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe didn't have much to say after the disappointing loss, one that saw his team choke again after a season where the Leafs finished with 115 points and a 54-21-7 record, their best season ever.
"We came up short," the third-year bench boss intoned. "Capitalizing on chances was the difference."