The Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the most exciting and entertaining clubs in the NHL this season, but once again proved to be flawed in critical areas and came up short when it counted. The Leafs bowed out in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third straight season with a 5-1 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 at TD Garden on Tuesday and will have to ponder what were the causes of another early exit and how they can be remedied.
Toronto weathered an early surge by the Bruins and played well for most of the first period, but a pair of defensive giveaways by Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner and some questionable goaltending by Frederik Andersen gave Boston a lead that they never relinquished.
John Tavares narrowed the Bruins advantage to 2-1 and a second period dominated by the Leafs, but they could not tie the game as Tuukka Rask was sharp and made key saves when he needed to.
Most of the effort and momentum for Toronto evaporated when Sean Kuraly scored to make it 3-1 early in the third and Boston put an exclamation point on the series with a pair of empty net goals.
“I thought we played real good and carried lots of the play and executed and played the way we wanted to play. So, it's disappointing.” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said after the loss. “I thought our series this year compared to last year, we were a way better hockey club. In the end, we weren't rewarded. I'm proud of the guys, I thought we worked. I think we're really taking steps and going in the right direction, but we've got to push through and get through this.”
There will be plenty of time for recriminations, analysis, and finger-pointing following another disappointing end at the hands of the Bruins, but the Leafs fate should not come as a surprise because their shortcomings have been apparent throughout the season and even go back before that.
Babcock is justifiably absorbing a lot of criticism for his player usage in the series, but nothing is more head-scratching than his refusal to increase the ice time of Auston Matthews when trailing in the final 40 minutes.
Matthews was third behind Tavares and Mitch Marner in TOI (18:48), but with Toronto down in the third period, the Leafs leading scorer saw just 6:16 of ice time, just three seconds more than the mostly ineffective William Nylander.
This should not come as any great shock, as Babcock has increasingly become a prisoner of his own limitations, relying too heavily on his trusted favorites (and is blind to how badly they are playing), and does not adjust to circumstances often.
Frederik Andersen had another great regular season and was one of the reasons that the Leafs got to seven games, but his history in Game 7s (0-4. 4.16 GAA, .856 save percentage has moved from a coincidence to a trend.
“I just got hit in the side of the face. I wasn’t expecting it. I don’t really know what happened, but it didn’t feel great, especially when you’re not expecting something.” —John Tavares on Chara scrum https://t.co/YFdbYkxFOL
Boston was not as physical as expected in the series, but they did impose their physical will on the Leafs and that was still a factor. Jake DeBrusk’s running amuck in Game 2 altered the series by sparking Nazem Kadri’s lack of impulse control and Zdeno Chara’s pancaking of Mitch Marner at the start of Game 4 and left cross to the chops of Tavares at the end of the second period on Tuesday showed that Boston had no fear of any pushback from Toronto.
The Leafs are facing a summer where a great deal of change is possible. They will likely search for a backup more capable of lightening the workload for Andersen after the failure of Garret Sparks. Jake Gardiner will probably not be back with the likelihood of drawing heavy interest in free agency and his status cemented as a playoff goat with a -3 performance in Game 7.
Veterans Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau may be considering retirement or could be cap casualties depending on how pricey the contract talks for Marner get, and it is possible that you have seen the last of either Kadri or William Nylander in Blue and White.
Some of these situations will not become clear until the summer, but we may get some indicators on Thursday when the club holds their locker cleanout and end-of-the-season media availabilities.
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