In some ways, that makes it worse.
The Maple Leafs have not won a playoff series since 2004. They’ve been eliminated in the opening round the past six seasons, including losing a deciding game in each of the past five.
This time, they went toe-to-toe with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.
“This one hurts more, because this was a really good team that really played hard,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “And the fact that you come that close against that team.
“You can debate the merits of any sort of credit that you might give our team, but I don’t know if you can debate anything you give the Tampa Bay Lightning and who they are and what they stand for and what they’ve accomplished We’re right there standing with them.”
[RELATED: Complete Maple Leafs vs. Lightning series coverage]
Keefe said based on the fact that the Maple Leafs were so close against the Lightning, who knows what might have happened had they been able to win the series.
“This one’s tough,” Keefe said, “because I feel we’re a lot closer than it appears.”
The Maple Leafs blew away team records for wins (54) and points (115) in the regular season, finishing fourth in the NHL standings. They had their first 60-goal scorer in center Austin Matthews.
But they played in such a difficult division, the Atlantic, that they finished second to the Florida Panthers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team.
As a result, their reward was a first-round matchup with the Lightning, who are trying to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup in three straight seasons since the New York Islanders won it in four straight from 1980-83.
The series was back-and-forth, with the teams alternating wins through the first six games, and Game 7 was a coin flip.
In situations like this, attention often turns to a team’s top players, especially the offensive forwards. It’s true that Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares did not score in Game 7. They didn’t come up big when it mattered most.
But neither did the Lightning’s top players. Tampa Bay’s two goals came from forward Nicholas Paula seven-year NHL veteran who had never scored in the playoffs until Saturday night.
Matthews finished with nine points (four goals, five assists) in the series, Marner had eight (two goals, six assists), Nylander had seven (three goals, four assists), and Tavares and defenseman morgan rielly each had six (three goals, three assists).
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to go all the way, and we haven’t been able to get past this hurdle here,” Tavares said. “We work all year long to build our game, to put ourselves in a good spot and to be ready for these opportunities, and I think we were. I think it’s just a fine line.”
If you’re looking for reasons the Maple Leafs lost the series, they’re little things, like two turnovers and a penalty that led to Lightning goals in a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 6, like a penalty that nullified a goal by Tavares in Game 7, like missed opportunities against a tough opponent.
The shot attempts were 73-45, Toronto, in Game 7. Tampa Bay blocked 26 shots.
“Lots of reasons to be proud, yet lots of reasons to be devastated and upset,” Keefe said. “Feel good about the effort that they put forth, that they gave us everything that they had, but you come up short. We’re in the winning business.”
So what now? The Maple Leafs don’t need to make major changes to management, the coaching staff or roster.
Not long ago, the Lightning couldn’t break through in their own way.
They lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and the Eastern Conference Final in 2016. After missing the playoffs in 2017, they again lost in the conference final in 2018 before being swept in the first round in 2019.
But they didn’t overreact. They stuck with their core and stuck with it.
“It’s not easy at this time of year,” Lightning captain Steven Stammos said. “We talked about it as a group before. We’ve had some failures in the past, and you just move on. You just got to get over that hump. That’s the thing. Sometimes it becomes mental, but it certainly wasn’t because [the Maple Leafs are] not worthy of it. They are.
“That was one of the toughest series we probably played. They’ve got the star players. They’ve got the goaltender. They’ve got some solid defensemen. You go down the list, they have everything. It’s just, we believed in ourselves, too.”
Still, the Maple Leafs do need to make tweaks, and they do need to keep growing to find the other side of that fine line.
Marner said it starts with everyone needing to train harder in the offseason to come back stronger, faster, quicker.
“We’re getting sick and tired of feeling like this,” Marner said. “So we’ve got to make sure we’re ready for this upcoming season.”