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Jake Evans (71) of the Montreal Canadiens skates the puck ahead of Auston Matthews (34) of the Toronto Maple Leafs during Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena on May 31, 2021 in Toronto, Ont.Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Maple Leafs’ most promising season in years ended on Monday night with a dull thud and a 3-1 loss to the Canadiens.

After winning its first division title since 2000, Toronto ended up blowing a 3-1 series lead and was eliminated by Montreal in the seventh game of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Maple Leafs have not won a round now since 2004 and have been knocked out of the first round in four of the past five years. The other year – 2020 – they were beaten during the Stanley Cup playoff qualifying tournament.

Leafs are choking their way out of this series, one weak link at a time

Brendan Gallagher broke a scoreless tie with a 29-foot wrist shot that squirted through Toronto goalie Jack Campbell’s legs barely three minutes into the second period. The Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner turned the puck over to set into motion the chain of events that ended with the puck in the net.

It was Gallagher’s first goal and first point of the series. The feisty Montreal forward had missed the final 21 games of the regular season with a broken thumb.

“Easier being on the road for these games,” Gallagher said afterwards. “You get to settle in and play your game.”

A power-play goal by Corey Perry put the Canadiens up 2-0 with 5:16 left in the second. The score came after Toronto’s Pierre Engvall was caught holding Montreal rookie Cole Caufield behind the Maple Leafs net. A shot by Nick Suzuki deflected off Perry’s knee past Campbell.

Canadiens goalie Carey Price stopped two point-blank shots by Zach Hyman late in the period that would have gotten Toronto back into the game. A certain future Hall of Famer, Price improved to 10-6 in games in which Montreal faced elimination.

He had 29 saves in what was only the second Game 7 ever played between the rivals in 104 years of competition. Toronto won the only other such contest between the Original Six franchises in 1964.

The game was played with fans inside Scotiabank Arena for the first time since March 10, 2020, when the Maple Leafs defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning. A total of 550 health-care workers were granted free admission.

Before O Canada was sung, a moment of silence was held to remember the 215 children whose remains were discovered recently on the property of a former residential school in British Columbia.

Toronto lost because its top players – Auston Matthews – and Marner failed to produce in the postseason. Matthews, who led the National Hockey League with 41 goals during the regular season, had just one in seven games. Marner, who was second on the team with 20 goals, failed to score. He has not scored a goal in 17 consecutive playoff games.

Between the two of them, they earned US$22.5-million this season. Both are now 0-7 in games Toronto has needed to win to close out a series.

After losing the opening game in the series, the Maple Leafs won three in a row and were a hair’s breadth from eliminating the Canadiens. Montreal accomplished the unlikely feat of sweeping the next three to advance to the second round. Game 1 will be in Winnipeg against the Jets on Wednesday night.

“I thought our boys responded well throughout the whole game,” Price told Rogers Sportsnet minutes afterwards. “They stuck with it. There is no secret recipe or something special said. They are all professionals in our locker room and just got the job done.”

The Canadiens forced a Game 7 after facing a 3-1 series deficit for the fourth time in franchise history. Tyler Toffoli added an empty-net goal with 3:22 remaining to close out the scoring.

The Maple Leafs played without defenceman Jake Muzzin, who left Game 6 with a lower-body injury. Head coach Sheldon Keefe said Monday that Muzzin would not be able to play for at least three weeks if Toronto had moved on in the playoffs. It was also without captain John Tavares, who suffered a concussion and knee injury in the opening game of the series.

Rasmus Sandin, who made two crucial errors that led to Montreal goals in Game 5, was re-inserted in the lineup to fill the last position on defence.

Toronto fell behind 3-0 and 2-0 in each of the last two games before rallying back and then losing in overtime.

“We have to assert ourselves early in the game better than we have,” Jason Spezza said in the morning. “I think we have played a little tentatively and passively the last two games, and Montreal has gotten off to good starts. If you look at the way we have finished games when we are behind, that is the type of game we have to play. That is a big key for us.”

It was a crushing defeat for the Maple Leafs, who went 7-2-1 against the Canadiens during the regular season. They finished 18 points ahead of Montreal in the all-Canadian North Division only to be upset by them in the most painful way possible.

Teams rarely lose a series when up 3-1, and this will just add to Toronto’s torturous past. Its only goal came by William Nylander with 1:36 left.

The game ended with the Canadiens celebrating and the Maple Leafs wondering how this had happened.

Again.

With a report from Dylan Earis.