Honestly, I don’t even want to write this article.
All day, I wanted to believe things would be different. Just this once. Matthews and/or Marner would break through. The coaching staff would take advantage of last change. Maybe, the Leafs would play well from puck drop instead of waiting to fall behind by a couple of goals.
Nope. Same old, same old. I’m going to have more expansive thoughts that will likely be more composed and reasonable in the coming days or weeks, but a lot of the issues were obvious tonight in a yet another first-round playoff funeral that looked a lot like the other ones over the years.
Your game in 10:
1. After two straight games of coming out of the gates, getting outplayed, and falling behind, the Leafs at least needed a reasonable start in this one. Both teams were fairly cautious in the first period, didn’t want to take any chances, and really jammed up the “house” in the defensive zone, making it difficult to get shots through.
Jack Campbell made a bit of a tricky save on a Jesperi Kotkaniemi tip off of a Erik Gustafsson backhander. A little later on, Josh Anderson fanned on a 2v1 pass across the net with a briefly-empty cage.
The Leafs started to push play a bit more towards the end of the period. Morgan Rielly had a chance all alone in the slot, Jason Spezza tipped a point shot, and after a string of icings, the Leafs tried out a William Nylander – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner line against a tired Habs group. Alex Kerfoot and Nylander broke in on a 2v1, and Marner had a great look with the puck in the slot to end the period.
2. The psyche was fragile enough that through one period, it was a tie game against a team that, let’s not forget, finished 18 points back of the Leafs, ranked 18th in points percentage, and owned a minus-nine goal differential during the season.
The top line got outshot yet again. Neither Phillip Danault or Brendan Gallagher were on for a shot against in the first period even though they drew the Auston Matthews line in their matchup. The Leafs’ coaching staff, with last change, did little to get around it.
The veteran fourth line looked good with some notable shifts controlling the puck down low. Nylander threw a big hit on Jake Evans and had a big backcheck early on as his line also flashed some offensive looks.
Travis Dermott led all skaters in time on ice in the first period – a nice response from him after his turnover led to the overtime winner in Game 6. At one point, he even successfully pulled off the 360 turn away from pressure that he tried and failed at in Game 6.
3. Yes, on the 1-0 goal, it was a bad turnover at the blue line from Mitch Marner, who was trying to make a move and create some offense. He had a small glimmer of a chance and tried to make a play.
Honestly, though, that goal on Jack Campbell was terrible. There’s really not much else to say. You can analyze it any way you want, but Bredan Gallagher scored on a snapshot that went five hole from outside the top of the circle. There was no screen. There was no deflection. It’s a really bad goal.
4. After going up 3-1 in the series, the Leafs never led a single game again. Three straight games of getting scored on first. Three straight games of falling behind multiple goals before they really started to turn it on. I can even sort of squint and understand a bit of a letdown in Game 5, but in Game 6, they came out and just got ran over for two periods. In Game 7, they were tentative and barely broke even after the first, which felt like a win for them. It was completely stunning.
5. If you were looking for a glimmer of hope, the Leafs did have a great pushback after that goal for the next few shifts. Marner found Hyman with a pass to send him in all alone. Ideally, Hyman would’ve one-timed that. Brodie put a point shot on net with some good traffic in front. Foligno also found Hyman for a backdoor play. Kerfoot went on another 2v1 with Nylander, and they again failed to even get a shot on net.
The bottom line, though, is that through two periods, Justin Holl led the team in shots on goal. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander combined for one shot on goal through two periods.
Natural Stat Trick put the Leafs at zero high-danger scoring chances through two periods at 5v5. I thought the Morgan Rielly chance would qualify, but anyway you shake it, they barely created. It was literally the exact same story as last year against Columbus: Perimeter hockey. Could not get pucks through. Did not get inside enough. Goalie let in a stinker to put them behind the eight ball.
6. That was one of the most stunning coaching decisions I’ve seen in quite some time to start the third period. With a full two-minute power play, the Leafs’ coaching staff put the top unit on, with Rasmus Sandin quarterbacking the power play even though Morgan Rielly was one of the few players actually pushing the pace through 40. Matthews was somehow standing in the bumper role on the power play. The other fun part? After they did nothing for a minute, the top unit was yanked off — even though they were fresh to start the period.
The Leafs went to another power play later in the third period and did generate some offense. It started with a clean faceoff win and Sandin bobbling the puck for no reason, leading to the puck leaving the zone. It took them all series to figure out that maybe Joe Thornton can’t play on the top power-play unit anymore.
The power play has been legitimately awful since the beginning of April. They had no answers. They tried the same thing over and over again with little rhyme or reason throughout the season and playoffs. They have a collection of elite talent at their disposal, so that is not the issue.
7. I wonder if Nick Foligno was injured when the team acquired him or if he picked it up after the trade. He was clearly never healthy in the playoffs, and the acquisition was a total bust as a result. He’s a much better player than he showed, but he barely looked 50% at times.
8. There’s going to be a lot of, “They couldn’t score… should have traded for Taylor Hall!” discourse this offseason, but honestly, where is a team going in the playoffs when its top players are no shows?
Auston Matthews recorded points in two of the seven games if we ignore his garbage-time point tonight — in one game, he racked up three points and was legitimately good, and in the other, he picked up an assist for getting in Marner’s way before he passed it to Hyman. That’s the extent of his offensive contributions over the course of seven games.
There is probably nothing to say about Mitch Marner that hasn’t already been said. To say he looked nervous and borderline scared at times is an understatement. He has been legitimately bad for multiple playoffs in a row.
After John Tavares was knocked out of the series a few minutes in, where were the Leafs going with that kind of showing from their star players? Is the argument that Taylor Hall was going to be the difference — that Hall, William Nylander, and a 37-year-old Jason Spezza were going to carry this team?
Sure, they’d have been better off with Hall, but you’re never going anywhere when the top players are that bad – and literally play as much as they want in the process with zero accountability from the coaching staff. A team is going nowhere when its top players throw up that kind of performance in the playoffs — full stop.
Before anyone starts comparing the situation to Colorado — which is already, predictably, happening — how about watching what the Avalanche’s top line is doing out there, and then watching what the Leafs top line just did for seven games?
9. It is almost comical that the Leafs’ final game of the series saw Auston Matthews play nearly 25 minutes and Mitch Marner play nearly 24. Basically, since he was hired, Keefe’s solution for everything has been to play the tar out of Matthews and Marner. They always played together the entire season, no matter what. He never split them up. He never had them carry lines individually.
He also never tried William Nylander at center –– that would have been nice to have in the back pocket when Tavares went out (I’ll stop you before you say he can’t possibly have predicted that. You absolutely have to be prepared for injuries to top players, and the Leafs were playing with house money for about a month before the playoffs).
Keefe showed no creativity and no tactical answers for any problems. The only answer was to play Matthews and Marner more. He did finally play Nylander over 20 minutes tonight in regulation, but it was too little, too late.
This is exactly what happened last summer, too – a second straight year of a premature playoff exit happening in part because the Leafs were out coached. I don’t know if Kyle Dubas has another coach-firing bullet in his chamber, but I also don’t know how he can bring back this staff.
10. Maybe it’s too fresh and I’m still losing it, but I honestly don’t see how you blame Kyle Dubas for this unless you want to go after him for hiring this coaching staff. The Leafs were the better team on paper — even with their injuries — and the coaching staff did nothing to help tilt the advantages in the team’s favour. The stars did not produce.
If you are going to argue, “Going into the series, I knew without a doubt they were going to lose,” I could see the case for the buck stopping with the GM. But I didn’t see a single non-partisan person predicting a Habs win — with good reason.
To me, this 2021 result was not on the GM. Whether he has a real plan going forward to fix this mess is a different story.