On Friday night it looked like the worm might finally be ready to turn for the Toronto Maple Leafs. A franchise that has endured heartbreak after heartbreak since their last Stanley Cup in 1967 was poised to turn the tables. They had made a stunning rally from 3-0 down to Columbus in Game 4 of the preliminary round series. Facing elimination, the Leafs scored three times in the final four minutes and then won in overtime.
Surely, nothing was going to stop them now. They would surely win Game 5 on Sunday night and the Game 4 comeback would reverse all the bad playoff memories of the last half-century. But as Leslie Nielsen might say on Airplane, “stop calling me ‘surely’”.
Last night, Toronto looked nothing like a team that had newfound momentum. They lost 3-0 to the Blue Jackets and the season quietly ended. The city of Toronto is hosting the Eastern Conference hub and while fans are obviously not a factor, the Maple Leafs might have benefitted from being in more familiar surroundings as the postseason wore on and visiting teams and players grew hotel-weary. Now, they won’t get a chance to find out.
The Maple Leafs got the fast style of play they wanted. They averaged nearly 38 shots per game. They allowed 32 shots per game. Their goalie, Frederik Andersen, was brilliant and stopped nearly 94 percent of the shots launched at him. Toronto’s collection of young, fast offensive talent had everything they needed to bring home a series victory.
Instead, the great players went silent. Auston Matthews scored just two goals. The same with John Tavares, and the latter had a big miss last night from close range to an open net when the score was still 1-0. Mitch Marner, the talented forward, didn’t score the entire series. While Marner’s primary advantage is his passing, he still only had four assists—and three of them came in that flurry to close Game 4. Otherwise, he was a non-factor.
Toronto is a great hockey town and their beloved franchise has not won a playoff series since 2004. They have not reached the conference finals since 2002. And they haven’t even been in the Finals since the last championship in ’67. This core group of players needs to start ending at least the most basic of those streaks. It won’t happen this year.