TORONTO (May 15) — I watched the first two periods of Game 7 on Saturday night before getting dressed and going to work. As such, I listened on radio to the final eight minutes of the decisive match between the Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning. I figured the Leafs might deadlock the score with their goalie on the bench for an extra attacker, as they’ve done so frequently under coaches Mike Babcock and Sheldon Keefe. As it turned out, the home side barely threatened to force overtime. And, the end came — on radio — almost silently. After which Joe Bowen, the voice of the Leafs since 1982, simply announced “it’s over… it’s happened again.”
I’ve known Joe for more than 35 years and I’ve never heard him so utterly disconsolate. As always, he maintained professional decorum, but you could read his mind. Had Joe not been the ultimate pro, he would have told his audience, “I’m 71 and I’ve been doing this job for the past four decades. Will I ever — and I mean EVER — get to call a Stanley Cup game?” It’s a question that Bowen has frequently pondered during this longest famine in Leafs history: an epoch of 17 springs, dating to 2004, without winning a playoff round. In order for Joe to call his first Cup final match, the Leafs must not only break that interminable drought, but win two more best–of–seven series in the same playoff year. Which, right now, seems utterly impossible. Just as fans of the Maple Leafs, young and old, are asking similar questions after the defending–champion Lightning squeaked into the Atlantic Division final with a 2–1 triumph at Scotiabank Arena. Undeniably deja vu for Leafs Nation, but with a slightly different twist.
Not that it particularly matters, but this wasn’t the Maple Leafs of Frederik Andersen allowing killer, soft goals against Washington, Boston and Columbus… or the Leafs of 2021 gagging on a 3–1 series lead against Montreal, the most–inept (if suddenly hot) playoff opponent in the 17 springs of misery. Instead, it was the best regular–season club in franchise annals slugging it out, blow by blow, with a two–time Stanley Cup winner. And, coming up one lousy goal shy of sending the decisive match into overtime. How do you get angry, or become overly critical, of a team that loses so narrowly in a game that reflected the parity of the entire, seven–game exercise?
The quick answer is: you don’t.
There were no excuses in this series, a classic tussle between teams of equal caliber in which one prevailed by the slimmest margin. Yet, still, it’s “wait ’til next year” for the most loyal and resilient fans in professional sport.
The latest opening–round defeat proved once more that the regular schedule is a dance party before a gun fight. It’s the reason I have long tended, in this corner, to downplay individual and team accomplishments between October and April. From my perspective, the regular season is an arrangement of 82 exhibition games in which points are awarded. Enough points must be accumulated to make the playoffs, at which time the stakes immediately change. Auston Matthews, as an example, performed adequately for the Maple Leafs against Tampa Bay, but not with nearly the flash or finish of the 82–game precursor, when it’s much easier to put up numbers. You know he’d give back all of his 60 goals for one measly playoff dagger. Which never materialized. Same for Mitch Marner and his 97 points; for William Nylander and his career–best 34 goals. The most–entertaining and skilled team in franchise history could not take it to the next level. For the third time in four playoff years, the Leafs failed to close out a series after building a 3–2 lead in games. Neither, when it mattered, was there enough support from beneath the vaunted nucleus — as displayed by third–liner Nick Paul of the Lightning, who outshone Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos with money on the line, scoring both Tampa Bay goals in the Game 7 victory.
So, the Leafs need to change. Perhaps not drastically, but in a way that can somehow lift the team beyond the playoff quagmire. The mostly flat salary cap, by itself, will necessitate amendment to the roster for next season. But, there is still the requirement for strategic change, which is more difficult, because it involves tough assessment of your top players. We’ll get into that in the coming days and weeks. Of paramount importance, yet again, is the continuation of a 45–year quest: to land an all–timer on the blue line, not seen in these parts since Borje Salming. If you watched Tampa Bay in the past two weeks and did not conclude that Victor Hedman is the most–important player in the National Hockey League, you’re in denial. Until the Leafs, by some means, unearth a defender that can control the pace of a Stanley Cup game, the longest championship drought will not likely end.