TORONTO — This playoff heartbreak felt different for the Maple Leafs.
A team that had so often stumbled in big moments went toe-to-toe with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
In the end, however, the result was the same — and perhaps even more crushing because of what might have been.
Nick Paul scored twice, including an incredible individual effort on the winner late in the second period, as the Tampa Bay Lightning topped Toronto 2-1 in Game 7 on Saturday to win the team’s first-round playoff series 4-3.
“It’s hard to explain,” Leafs captain John Tavares said in the wake of another devastating post-season setback for a franchise that hasn’t reached the second round since 2004. “It’s frustrating, hard to fathom.
“It stings, it hurts, it’s disappointing.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 30 saves for a team not yet ready to relinquish its crown despite losing star winger Brayden Point to an apparent leg injury late in the first period.
“A game of inches,” said Leafs star Auston Matthews, who scored 60 goals during the regular season and four more in playoffs. “Unfortunately we’re on the bad side of things tonight. It’s really frustrating.
“Every guy in there competed and gave it their all. They made one more play than us.”
Toronto had Tampa Bay, which will now meet the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers in the next round, on the ropes in Thursday’s Game 6 before the Lightning, as they so often have during their consecutive title runs, found a way to punch back.
“They’ve been through a lot of tough losses, heartbreak,” Matthews added. “And they’ve climbed the way to the top two years in a row.
“We’re right there … we’re right there.”
Morgan Rielly replied for Toronto, which hasn’t moved onto the second round in 18 years and is 0-9 in games where it can eliminate an opponent over the last five post-seasons. Jack Campbell stopped 23 shots.
Despite their best efforts, the Leafs were once again unable to push through and finally flip an long, ugly narrative of playoff failures for a franchise that has now lost its last seven series, including six straight dating back to 2017.
“We’re getting sick and tired feeling like this,” Toronto winger Mitch Marner said. “It’s gonna sting for a while.”
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was behind the bench for the 2020 post-season loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the bubble and a seven-game collapse against the Montreal Canadiens last spring after building a 3-1 lead — a pair of series where the group’s character was called into question by fans and media alike.
There’s unlikely to be any such qualms in 2022.
“This one hurts more because this was a really good team that really played hard,” Keefe said. “You can debate the merits of any sort of credit that you might want to give our team. But I don’t know if you can debate anything that you give the Tampa Bay Lightning, and who they are and what they stand for and what they’ve accomplished.
“And we’re right there standing with them.”
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said the series was one of the toughest his club has faced over the last three playoffs.
“A great hockey team,” he said of the Leafs. “They’ve got all the pieces. It’s not easy this time of the year.
“We’ve had some failures in the past … you just move on and you just gotta get over that hump.”
Down 1-0 after 20 minutes Saturday, the Leafs appeared to tie the game at 11:28 of the second when Tavares roofed a shot on Vasilevskiy, but the goal was disallowed after Toronto defenceman Justin Holl was whistled for interference.
Campbell had to make a couple of desperation stops on the ensuing penalty kill to set the stage for Rielly’s equalizer off setup from Marner and Matthews to score his third of the playoffs at 6:35 to send the crowd of 19,316 into a chaotic frenzy.
The goal was the first surrendered by Vasilevskiy and the Lightning in their last six series-deciding games.
William Nylander then missed high on a breakaway before the Tampa goaltender robbed Matthews with the Leafs buzzing.
Paul scored his second of the night — and second ever in the playoffs — moments later with 3:28 remaining in the period on a terrific play where he kicked the puck from his skate to his stick.
“The electricity in this building was nuts,” said the native of Mississauga, Ont. “To come in and work as hard as we did, there was no doubt in our game. We stuck together.”
Vasilevskiy was under siege throughout a Leafs’ power play just over six minutes into the third, but kept the home side at bay despite some furious pressure.
Toronto continued to press inside an anxious, tension-filled rink as the clock ticked down.
The Leafs, however, just couldn’t find a way through with Campbell on the bench for an extra attacker.
“Lots of reasons to be proud,” Keefe said. “Yet lots of reasons to be devastated and upset.”
Toronto will rue the latter stages of Game 6 when Tampa didn’t have much going on down 3-2 in the third period until connecting on a long 5-on-3 man advantage following consecutive high-sticking penalties.
The Leafs then had plenty of chances to win the series in OT, but couldn’t capitalize before Point forced Game 7.
“We had opportunities to finish them in Game 6 and failed to do so,” Keefe said. “This one’s tough because I really feel like we’re a lot closer than it appears.”
Tavares nearly opened the scoring early Saturday on a great chance in close where Vasilevskiy shot out his left pad before the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner denied Marner.
Campbell then held the fort on a Lightning power play on a couple of great looks.
Point, who scored the winner in Tampa’s Game 6 victory to extend the series, was injured late in the first when his right leg got caught underneath him as he fell to the ice. He tried to return after the intermission, but shut it down after a brief shift.
“When Pointer got hurt it seemed to lock the entire team in,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “I don’t think we looked back.”
Tampa went up 1-0 moments after Point was injured when Paul, who had a number of chances in Game 5 with his team ahead before Toronto roared back, scored his first.
Campbell made the initial stop on Ross Colton’s one-timer off the rush that nicked Rielly’s stick, but the rebound fell to Paul at 1:36 as Toronto surrendered the first goal for a fourth straight game.
The Lightning were playing in just their second Game 7 since the start of the 2020 playoffs after defeating the New York Islanders 1-0 in the semifinals last June.
Toronto’s last Game 7 at home with fans — the club’s 2021 loss against Montreal was played in front of 550 health-care workers because of COVID-19 restrictions — was all the way back in 2004 when Joe Nieuwendyk scored twice to oust the Ottawa Senators for the team’s last series win.
The Leafs didn’t make the playoffs again until 2013 when they collapsed in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. Toronto’s new generation of stars made the post-season for the first time in 2017, but has since suffered a string of heartbreak that continued Saturday.
“Because the feeling is the same, the outcome is the same, whether or not there’s differences or more positives or whatever, it’s going to take some time to figure that out,” Rielly said of if this sixth straight series loss.
“Ultimately, the outcome is the same, which is very disappointing.”
Keefe said the tone of the handshake line, however, was different from past playoff setbacks.
“We’re certainly earning respect in the league,” he said. “But we’re not in the respect game. We’re in the winning game. We’ve got to find a way.”
That quest starts anew in the fall.