By: Mitchell Fox
Well, it happened again.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have failed to advance beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on May 14, the Leafs have now lost in five straight winner-take-all games and fallen to 0-10 in potential series-clinching games since 2013. They also now hold the NHL’s longest active drought in advancing to the second round.
And for Leafs fans, it is utterly devastating, right?
After taking some time to stew on it, I am starting to think that somehow, maybe it isn’t.
Because believe it or not, some of us have not given up completely. Because honestly, as many have expressed over the last week, this loss felt “different.”
I am sure to many of you, especially the non-Leafs fans out there, that probably sounds ridiculous, not to mention cliché.
But here’s the thing — Leafs fans know this. They know that if you want ridiculous, look no further than the topic of the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff success.
The last time the Leafs won a playoff series was 2004.
Instead of going on about the songs or movies or new technologies that were big at the time, I’ll provide evidence in the form of some lesser-known players from the Leafs roster that year and where they are now.
Carlo Coliacovo was a rookie in 2004. After a career of over 450 NHL games, he is now a radio host and analyst on TSN.
Bryan Marchment was a defenceman on that Leafs team. In 2022, his son Mason just had a breakout season for the Florida Panthers at age 26.
Ron Francis was a veteran presence added at the 2004 trade deadline. Today he is the general manager of the Seattle Kraken, who traded Mark Giordano and Colin Blackwell to the Leafs at this year’s trade deadline.
I think you get the idea, but let’s add one more little anecdote to the story.
I was 15 months old.
Given I was probably barely even speaking or walking yet (that must have been nice, not being able to pace around or scream at the TV), it’s pretty safe to say I don’t have many great memories of watching my favourite hockey team.
And oh man, a new memory would have been fantastic. But it was not to be.
Perhaps the worst (or best, depending on your perspective) part of this loss is that it felt like victory was possible. One of the biggest differences this year was that the optimism, false as it was, stayed around a lot longer than usual. Why? Because this team played well enough for it to truly feel like they could win. The demons seemed beatable.
But that’s not what happened. Whether this team was different or not, the end result was the same. The demons remain.
Of course, it still had to come with all of the drama of a Toronto Maple Leafs playoffs series that fans have become accustomed to since that heartbreak against the Boston Bruins in 2013.
A QUICK RECAP - Games 1-4
When the Leafs won game one 5-0, my reaction was “Well, that’s not happening again.”
Again, not a ton of optimism in Leafs land these days.
It just seemed the Tampa Bay Lightning were too good of a team to get beat that way again. And, unfortunately for the Leafs, it was probably true. The Lightning did not make anything easy the rest of the way, looking more like the defending back-to-back champions with each game.
I also figured (mostly based on past experiences) the Leafs would not be able to look that good again in a playoff series. On this, I will gladly admit I was wrong.
In game two, the Leafs lost 5-3, but it was not a terrible performance. Simply put, they took too many penalties and allowing five goals is never a great plan when the goalie at the other end is Andrei Vasilevskiy.
So after two games, the series was tied at 1-1. Not a big surprise considering where the two teams finished in the standings, not to mention the superstar talent on both rosters.
Meanwhile, game three allowed that elusive optimism to creep back into the minds of Leafs fans like myself. Although the 5-2 score was inflated by two empty-net goals from Ilya Mikheyev, this game indicated this team was capable of winning tough playoff games.
They seemed to have depth scoring, Jack Campbell was playing well in goal and they might have even been the better team through three games.
And in typical Leafs fashion, that optimism was torn away.
Game four. Can I even call it a game if only one team really showed up?
For those of you that did not watch, you guessed it. That team was not the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The final score of the game was 7-3, but it felt worse. In what could have been a series-defining game, the ice was tilted heavily in the Lightning’s favour from the drop of the puck.
So for many fans, it felt like the Leafs were behind in a 2-2 series. They had failed to show up in an important game and the doubts were creeping in.
GAME FIVE — HOPE
After the first period of game five, those doubts were even more prevalent.
For the second straight game, the Leafs started as the lesser of two hockey teams clad in blue and white.
The ice tilted in the Lightning’s favour almost from puck drop once again, as evidenced by their 14-5 lead over the Leafs in shots on goal.
Though a strong performance between the pipes from Campbell meant Tampa’s lead was limited to 2-0, Leafs fans — who were used to their team crashing and burning in the playoffs – had good reason to be concerned for the trajectory of the series.
Naturally, the Leafs had to use the rest of that game to make fans believe there was a chance. A chance not only to win a game, but to exorcise some demons.
An incredible third period did plenty to help that, though it came with its share of drama too.
The Leafs ended up scoring two goals in a little over a minute, turning a deficit into a lead and bringing fans to their feet.
But then, in typical Leafs fashion, that lead disappeared in an instant.
When the Lightning tied it up at 3-3 on a rocket of a shot from Ryan McDonagh, it was hard to know what to think. Some Leafs fans likely gave up, knowing this was almost exactly the kind of situation the Leafs had failed in time after time for almost a decade.
For others, this was an exhilarating game with endless possibilities. After all, there were still over 11 minutes left in regulation and these were two incredibly gifted teams.
In the interest of keeping this to a somewhat reasonable length, I’ll be brief with the rest.
They won that game.
Mitch Marner’s shot-pass led to Auston Matthews burying the rebound off the pad of Andrei Vasilevskiy into the goal. The Leafs biggest stars had not only shown up in a big game, they had paired up for what could (but, of course, wouldn’t) prove to be one of the most important goals in a 7-game series that saw almost 50 of them.
The Leafs managed to hold off the Lightning for the remaining six minutes or so, taking game five 4-3 and giving themselves an important 3-2 lead in the series.
The Leafs had not only won, but they had done so by overcoming a terrible start, a few penalties, and a number of situations where they would have crumbled in years past. It was a real source of optimism for fans who had become so averse to it.
False optimism, it turns out.
I’ve got another confession to make (if you didn’t sing that in a Dave Grohl yell, I’m slightly disappointed):
I wrote a good portion of what you have read so far the day after game five.
I was confident. And passionate. And I really believed it was at least possible that the Leafs could do the thing.
Maybe, just maybe, they could win a playoff round.
Or maybe not.
Game six was not even bad. The Leafs played well, coming back from yet another early deficit to force overtime and looking like the better team in the extra frame.
It was an incredible game to watch, Leafs fan or not. Overtime between two evenly-matched, highly-talented teams in an elimination game? Count me in.
Well, maybe don’t count me in for the part where the Lightning score to force game seven.
But you know what’s crazy? When the Leafs lost that game, it still felt like somehow this situation was different. The team was different. The season was different. The feeling in my heart was different.
The crazy part is, I am thinking the same thing now.
After they lost in another game seven heartbreak, I am somehow still optimistic about the things this team could do.
Because this core is not just good, it is very good. An unbelievable 60 goals for Matthews. 97 points for Marner. Nearly point-per-game seasons for both William Nylander and John Tavares. A great season for Morgan Rielly.
And that is not all. Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall had personal-best seasons, Michael Bunting, Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin (injuries aside) had breakout seasons, and Giordano and Blackwell contributed positively as deadline acquisitions.
The Leafs also got incredible goaltending from Jack Campbell in both the regular season (he was an All-Star back in January) and the series against the Lightning, where he went toe-to-toe with Vasilevskiy. Let’s just hope the Leafs will be able to re-sign him this offseason...
And then there is Jason Spezza. It is hard to find anyone I feel worse for than the 39-year-old Toronto native who has taken multiple league-minimum contracts in an effort to bring his hometown team its first Stanley Cup in over half a century.
When it mattered, he provided what the team needed from him. It was revealed that during the first intermission of game five, it was Spezza who spoke up and inspired the team. And despite being given limited ice time throughout the series, he earned every second, even being put on the ice with the goalie pulled late in game seven.
The point is, this team was great and they played great right to the end. The result sucks, and change is inevitable in a league with a salary cap, but tearing this team apart doesn’t seem like the right move.
They failed, no doubt about it. But that failure looked and felt very different from the many others. As cliché as it sounds, it really seems like this team is capable of breaking through if they get another chance.
The Leafs carried their incredible regular season performance into the playoffs. They gave the reigning champions all they could handle and even managed to overcome seemingly back-breaking game scenarios in a way they had not in the past.
Still, there was one important thing they could not overcome. They blew a series lead again. They lost in game seven again. And they missed the second round. Again.
ONWARD AND (HOPEFULLY) UPWARD
The Leafs lost again and there is no doubt fans are disappointed. But you cannot forget what you watched. What you cheered for. What you groaned about. It is all a part of the experience.
And as heart-wrenching as that experience was in the end, was it ever an incredible one.
We all got to watch an exhilarating seven-game playoff series between two incredible opponents, filled with everything from lopsided efforts to close games, high-scoring affairs to a 2-1 game seven.
What a game seven it was. What a series it was. What a season it was.
And throughout it all, we got to have that incredible experience as part of a community. A community of fans that have put their heart on their sleeves despite knowing it could be broken yet again by 20 men with a blue maple leaf emblazoned on their chest.
Through the anger, the disappointment and the heartbreak, Leafs fans have had family, friends, and even random strangers to share the experience with.
But the same is true for joy, optimism and pride. Every time that Hall and Oates goal song was played, a buzz reverberated from Scotiabank Arena, through Maple Leafs Square and into homes across the country and the world.
As much as Leafs fans are going into the offseason disappointed, they are still going to come back next year. They are going to put that heart back on their sleeve and follow along as a slightly different team of 20 men don the blue and white.
And as much as this team seems cursed, they will continue to believe a Stanley Cup is on the horizon.
Let’s just hope that the horizon is close, because I don’t know how many more times I can handle this.