Maple Leafs' Cruel and Twisted Nightmare is Realized in Series Collapse to Canadiens

The Toronto Maple Leafs ran roughshod over the North Division during the regular season but the playoffs brought in a new, yet familiar kind of sorrow in a disappointing opening round exit to the Montreal Canadiens.
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It happened again.

After a 3-1 series lead and all the momentum to boot, the Toronto Maple Leafs' path to a deep playoff run never seemed so clear.

But Toronto's history repeated itself in a cruel manner as they dropped three consecutive games to the bottom-ranked Montreal Canadiens to bow out of the opening round of the 2021 playoffs.

"The goals were higher this year, it makes the disappointment harder," Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said. "We realize we let an opportunity slip."

Playing in front of fans at home for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 550 frontline health care workers witnessed the Leafs struggle to play to their identity. Their puck-possessing, controlled-zone-entering swagger that ran roughshod over the North Division during the regular season and first four games of the playoffs disappeared when they needed it most.

It was the Habs who seemingly figured out how to stop Toronto's potent offense dead in its tracks in a 3-1 victory on Monday to take Game 7. 

"We're obviously devastated, disappointed," Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. "(We) expected better of ourselves and we think we're capable of a lot more, not just tonight but through the whole series."

The Leafs had no high-danger scoring chances after one period. The Canadiens ended up winning the battle of controlled entries by a 37-33 margin, a surprise given Toronto led all teams in regular-season successful zone entries rate at 59 percent. 

Having a future hall-of-fame goaltender in Carey Price also helped Montreal. He made 30 saves against the Leafs on Monday, to put in a dominant performance in the net.

That isn't to take anything away from Leafs goalie Jack Campbell, who performed well in his first playoffs as a starting goaltender.

He was deserving of the opportunity after a record-setting 11 straight wins to start his season. He showed maturity after dealing with a three-game losing streak that followed his winning ways.

Campbell was his own worst critic following a loss and it wasn't any different after the emotional goaltender blamed himself for the first goal he let in on Monday, a shot from the circle by Montreal's Brendan Gallagher that went through his five-hole at 3:02 of the second period.

"Just thinking of how hard our team battled and then for it to the end like that," Campbell said. "The worst goal of my career happened in Game 7. It's unacceptable."

When the horn sounded at Scotiabank Arena to end the game, the Leafs players formed a circle around Campbell to commiserate over what had just happened and to let the goaltender know that they wasted his .934 save percentage in the series.

Price finished the series with a .932 save percentage as both goaltender were exceptional.

The Leafs failure to close things out in Games 5 and 6 in overtime will sting. Particularly in Game 6 when the Leafs outshot the Canadiens 13-1 in the extra frame before Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored to force Monday's game. 

Auston Matthews had just one goal in the series, while Mitch Marner hasn't scored in his last 18 post-season games.

"I had a lot of looks, a lot of nets that were empty that I just didn't put it into, " Marner said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself be the best player every single night. 

"I wasn't living up to my own standards and I have to make sure that stops happening."

After bowing out to the Columbus Blue Jackets in their best-of-five qualifying-round series back in August, the Leafs added to their team by adding veterans in hopes of having them step up for these moments.

Jason Spezza certainly stepped up with three goals and two assists in five playoff games. Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds had an impact earlier in the series but faded down the stretch.

The team was applauded for their ability to maximize the limitations of the salary cap to their benefit and added players like Nick Foligno, who was clearly hurt for much of his brief tenure in Toronto.

His time as a Leaf ended as the center for the team's fourth line. Not his fault, but hardly the return the Leafs envisioned when they surrendered a 2021 first-round pick for the player back in April.

To add further disappointment, this failed run ruined what had been a breakout post-season series for William Nylander. Much-maligned for his play, he led the team in scoring with five goals and three assists and he did it with a carousel of different linemates due to injuries to  captain John Tavares and Foligno in Game 2.

There will be calls for changes, particularly to the Leafs' core four players: Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Tavares. The four make up nearly half of the team's salary cap hit. With reports that the cap could stay flat for as long as the 2024-25 season, moving one of those players may be needed to shock the team from this unexpected loss.

Keefe, himself let the emotions his players were feeling sink in.

"Our guys were quite devastated after the game, so I chose not to speak to the group after," he said.

With the pandemic rounding the corner, next season is expected to resemble a normal 82-game format with the Leafs back in the Atlantic Division. The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, giants in the division and still playing in the playoffs, will be back to challenge Toronto.

This season marked one of their best chances to go on a deep run, based on the degree of difficulty of their Canadian opponents.

They didn't make it to June.

In a year where the Leafs were the focal point of Amazon Prime's docuseries 'All or Nothing', it was the latter they ended up with. In previous seasons where all you could do was laugh at their misfortune, you can't help but feel bad for them this time around. 

In any other year, there would be positives to spin. But in the pressure cooker that is the Toronto market, frustration layers from year to year. Pessimists rule in a time where optimism comes at a hefty premium.

A long and somewhat uncertain offseason awaits the Maple Leafs. Another year has passed questions continue to outpace answers.

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