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SIMMONS: Different team, better team, same heartbreak for Maple Leafs


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It wasn’t about 18 years of futility. It wasn’t about 55 years without a Stanley Cup. It wasn’t about what may or may not have happened in the past.

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This wasn’t the whole story of the Maple Leafs’ past playoff loss — and some will come to that — or the frustration of losing a 4-1 Boston lead or a 3-1 lead. in series against a so-so The Montreal team. Or all the Game 7 defeats of the past.

It was about one night, one game, one punch in the gut, and a whole lot of frustration.

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It was different, that series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and you have to look at it that way. It was two great hockey teams playing, one playoff, one goal difference at the end, and one team’s season was about to end in horrible disappointment.

Someone had to lose.

And, again, that someone was the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And it feels awful and empty and it’s terribly frustrating and it’s more disappointing because the Tampa Bay Lightning are so close – or the Leafs are so close to champion Lightning – and having a great, record-breaking season lost in the game 7 after losing Game 6 in overtime and it’s easy to feel they left something on the table here.

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But this team is different. And this opponent was different.

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This Leafs team was emotional. This team was smart most of the time. That’s why they had the most points in Leafs history. This is why they have won the most matches of all time.

If you want to be disappointed today, you have every right to be. It’s good to expect more. It’s nice to want a run in the playoffs.

The Leafs themselves certainly think that way. They don’t want to hear about the past. They didn’t hire John Ferguson Jr. or Brian Burke to lead this team. They didn’t trade for Owen Nolan, Brian Leetch or Phil Housley. It happened when those Leafs were just kids.

But the likes of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly, who combined for Toronto’s only score that was not recalled by officials, are feeling bad today. That loss wasn’t necessarily on them, or any singular Leafs player, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hurt. It hurts.

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Matthews has scored the most NHL goals this season and the most NHL goals since joining the league and the save of the night by world goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy came on a shot from Matthews. A goal would have given the Leafs a 2-1 lead, a lead they never had on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena.

That’s what Vasilevskiy has done all his career in big games and big moments. He makes saves that other goalies can’t. He made the save on Matthews.

Shortly after the trade deadline pickup, Mississauga kid Nick Paul got the kind of rebound the Leafs didn’t seem to get that night and gave Tampa a 2-1 lead. . The goal seemed almost an answer to Matthews’ shot that didn’t score – the kind of momentum Dominik Hasek used to provide his teammates – with the shot coming shortly after William Nylander had a semi-breakaway, attempted a backhand shot that went over the net instead of entering it.

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Two chances for the Leafs, no goals. One Tampa chance, one goal. This is the game. This is the series.

The Leafs season is now over. Now there will be twists and blame because that’s what happens at the end of every season. So who is to blame for the Leafs losing 2-1 when they had the most scoring player in hockey, the best power play in the league and one of the game’s most creative passers? Whose fault is it in all of this?

You can start with Vasilevskiy and then move on to Lightning coach Jon Cooper, the best goalie in the business and the best coach in the business.

Vasilevskiy didn’t have to save the puck very often. The Tampa players in front of him blocked the most shots, 26 shots in all. They took care of the front of their net as champions usually do. They left no room for the Leafs. They made everything difficult. That’s just one of the reasons they’ve won two Stanley Cups and are heading towards what could be a third.

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The Leafs have been valiant in their attempts to pass the pucks, to find open players and a little too often to overthink what to do with the puck. It’s something that has haunted this team in previous playoffs.

With all that offense, they needed to produce more and they needed to get something from players other than the Big Four and Rielly on defense. This is something they need to improve.

Do these Leafs care enough about another first-round loss?

All you had to do was watch Matthews go through the handshake line. His eyes were almost wet. His expression was pure sadness. All the money, all the awards, all the accolades won’t buy what he wanted most on Saturday night.

This season is over. Too early again. This one different from all the last 55 years. It was a team that could have gone far. They were so close. They were so real.

In the end, they were once again heartbroken.

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