This may have been a different Toronto Maple Leafs team that faced the Boston Bruins in the seventh and deciding game of an NHL playoff series for the third time in seven years but yet another loss had a familiar look to it.
Defenceman Jake Gardiner once again made a big mistake at a bad time. The only difference was this time Auston Matthews took a share of the blame.
Goaltender Frederik Andersen was wonderful in every game of the series except this one.
The edge in depth the Leafs were supposed to have was neutralized when Nazem Kadri got himself suspended early in the series for the second consecutive year because he simply cannot control himself. William Nylander stepped in to take Kadri’s spot at centre on the third line and it was never a factor in the series.
The Bruins’ fourth line scored two goals Tuesday night and the third line produced another one for a 5-1 win that sends them into the second round of the playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets. For the second year in a row, the Leafs have to go home and think about what cost them – their special teams (the power play was 0-for-2 on Tuesday), bad mistakes at bad times and key players such as Mitch Marner getting shut down over the last three games.
Toronto was Canada’s last hope of ending a 26-year Cup drought following the elimination of both the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets. The Leafs have not won the Cup since 1967.
“I think it was pretty small,” Matthews said of the difference between the Leafs and Bruins on Tuesday. “Little things for sure. Small mistakes on us. Tonight I thought most of the game we played pretty well. We gave up two good scoring chances and dug ourselves in a hole, weren’t able to come out of it.
“It’s just frustration everybody feels in this locker room. It’s sad to see it end the way it did. So this is obviously a feeling we’ve experienced two years in a row. It’s not a good feeling for any of us. It’s something we want to not really experience again.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly, who may have stepped up his game this season more than any other player on the team and was a rock in the series, said the Leafs knew it would be tough to knock off the Bruins but believed to the very end they could do it.
“I think the belief in the room was different than what it was perceived to be [by the media and fans],” he said. “We didn’t expect to walk our way past this round.
“I don’t know, it’s tough. This isn’t the way we wanted it to end. When your goals are higher and this happens it’s not a good feeling so we’ll have to deal with it and just come back stronger.”
The killing blow came just under three minutes into the third period when Andersen whiffed on a Sean Kuraly wrist shot to put the Bruins up by two. Charlie Coyle and Patrice Bergeron added two empty-net goals to kill the Leafs’ effort with an extra skater.
The Bruins took a 2-0 lead in a rather cautious first period, capitalizing on two Leafs mistakes for goals by Joakim Nordstrom and Marcus Johansson. But the Leafs came back strong in the second, scoring early on John Tavares’ first five-on-five goal of the series and picking up the pace considerably.
Strong efforts from the Tavares line and the fourth line of Frederik Gauthier, Tyler Ennis and Trevor Moore got the Leafs moving. They buzzed around the Bruins net much of the period, outshooting them 13-8 but could not produce the tying goal and the score stood 2-1 for Boston going into the third period.
Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask frustrated the Leafs with several big saves in the middle frame. And despite the strong play by the Leafs’ fourth line it was the Bruins’ fourth line that got results.
Much was expected of the Tavares line coming into the game because of the domination of the Bruins’ big three, Bergeron, Marchand and David Pastrnak. Tavares, Marner and Zach Hyman played well; just not well enough.
The tension went up sharply late in the second period, which saw Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara go after Tavares as the siren sounded and a scrum developed. He knocked Tavares down with a punch to the head but escaped a penalty.
It was hard to tell if the ice was better, as both teams played with a degree of caution like they did in Game 5. There was not much space on either side, although the Leafs found themselves down 2-0 after the first period because of two terrible mistakes by the defence pair of Travis Dermott and Gardiner.
Both came late in the period after the Leafs actually acquitted themselves rather well from the start. The Bruins pounced on both of them and erased some good work by the Tavares line and the fourth line.
The first one was committed by Dermott, who tried a long pass to Matthews from deep in the Leafs zone when the Bruins’ fourth line had them hemmed in. This was picked off by the Bruins and they turned it into the first goal of the game when Nordstrom bounced a shot off Andersen that somehow got between him and the short-side post. It was not a great goal to give up by a goaltender who had been excellent over the series.
Gardiner made his mistake three minutes later when he was being pursued by a Bruin behind the Leafs net. For some reason Gardiner, who saves his worst mistakes for the biggest games, thought it would be a good idea to dump the puck behind him at the end boards.
The only problem was that no Leaf was in sight to retrieve it, just Johansson. He grabbed it, stepped in front of the net and fired a shot past Andersen at 17:46.
Matthews said afterward he was just as culpable as Gardiner because he called for the puck.
“I think just missed communication,” Matthews said. “I was calling for it to go up the middle. I think [Gardiner], when I called for it he thought I meant reverse. It was just a little miscommunication. It was a mistake on our part. That’s on both of us and it’s in the back of our net.”
However, Gardiner’s teammates were in no mood to blame him for another faux pas at the wrong time. Rielly bristled when asked what he could tell Gardiner since he was sure to be blamed by the fans and media for the mistake.
“Nobody cares what anyone says,” Rielly said. “He’s a [expletive] really good player. We want him back next year so that’s that.”