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First Round

Maple Leafs at a loss to explain similar playoff ending by Bruins

Ousted in first round again despite addition of Tavares

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

BOSTON -- It was deja vu all over again. There was Auston Matthews on Tuesday, standing in the same dressing room, in the same arena, having been eliminated by the same team, answering the same question he'd been asked 363 days earlier.

What went wrong? Again.

"It's just frustration everybody feels in this locker room," the Toronto Maple Leafs forward said, searching for an explanation he didn't really have. "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."


[RELATED: Bruins top Maple Leafs in Game 7 | Complete series coverage]


Matthews expressed similar heartfelt sentiments on April 25, 2018 after the Maple Leafs had their season end with a 7-4 loss to the host Boston Bruins at TD Garden in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round. It was the type of pain, he said at the time, that he wanted to quickly forget.

Almost one year to the day later, that grinding hurt was back thanks to a 5-1 loss to the Bruins in Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference First Round. Boston advances to play the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round, leaving Toronto to ponder what might have been.

Maple Leafs management, to its credit, was proactive after the 2018 elimination to make them better. The most notable addition was signing John Tavares, the biggest name on the free agent market, to a seven-year, $77 million contract, augmenting Toronto's strength at center with Matthews and Nazem Kadri.

Tavares finished third in the NHL with 47 goals during the regular season and scored Toronto's goal Tuesday. 

It wasn't enough. Even with Tavares, the Maple Leafs could not get over the first-round hurdle.

Video: TOR@BOS, Gm7: Tavares beats Rask off turnover

"I'm in my 10th year. These opportunities, you recognize and appreciate them more and more. You don't take any of them for granted," said Tavares, who played his first nine NHL seasons for the New York Islanders. "You know how hard it is to win …"

He paused to collect his thoughts.

"You're disappointed," he said. "You want to make the most of this, and we didn't. At some point you're going to have to lick your wounds, look yourself in the mirror and find ways to improve and how can we get better, and find a way to break through. 

"We have a lot of talent, a lot of youth, a lot of growth still ahead of us, but just to really realize you have to make the most of every chance you get. It's just difficult right now."

Tavares has a point when it comes to the young talent. Matthews, 21, Mitchell Marner, 21, William Nylander, 22, and Morgan Rielly, 25, form the youthful foundation of the Maple Leafs. 

At the same time, those four players have been eliminated in the Eastern Conference First Round three consecutive seasons; by the Washington Capitals in 2017, and by the Bruins in 2018 and 2019.

At what point will this core learn to take the next step? In their minds, it could have happened this year, it should have happened this year. It didn't.

"We'll have to figure it out," Rielly said. "We're a team that's going to have to go through it together. It's going to take guys coming together, guys buying in, like we did. 

"I think we had guys that bought in, for sure. It's not a question of character, it's a question of moving forward together."

Video: TOR@BOS, Gm7: Bruins, Maple Leafs meet to shake hands

In breaking down what went wrong, the Maple Leafs essentially lost the series by failing to put away the Bruins when they had the opportunity.

They could have taken a 3-1 lead in the series with a victory in Game 4 at Scotiabank Arena. They didn't.

They could have eliminated the Bruins with a win in Game 6 on home ice. They didn't.

You can't keep giving good teams life. Toronto did. A veteran Bruins team with leaders like forward Patrice Bergeron and defenseman Zdeno Chara took full advantage.

Goalie Frederik Andersen, so good throughout much of the series, was beaten on a soft short-side goal by Joakim Nordstrom at 14:29 of the first period. Marcus Johansson scored at 17:46 for a 2-0 lead after Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner left the puck behind the net.

Tavares narrowed the lead to 2-1 at 3:54 of the second period, but the Bruins sealed the deal with three goals in the third.

In the end, Toronto's offense dried up at the worst time. It mustered three goals in the final two games.

Nylander, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman each scored one goal in seven games; Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown had zero. Marner scored two but was held without a goal for the final six games.

Matthews had a breakout series and led the Maple Leafs with six points (five goals, one assist). Tavares (two goals, three assists) and Rielly (one goal, four assists) tied for second with five.

Toronto must now shake off the disappointment of yet another first-round loss with a couple of key roster calls. Gardiner can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and is not expected to return. Marner can become a restricted free agent and is in for a big payday.

Coach Mike Babcock said they must find ways to get through the looming tough decisions.

"We've got to push through this because you can't be talking after a playoff series that you're going home," he said. "That's the bottom line."



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