Habs set for date with Jets after completing stunning series comeback against Leafs
Montreal begins 2nd round matchup against Winnipeg on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET
After so much playoff disappointment, so much agony for a tortured fan base, it was looking like this year would be different for the Maple Leafs.
First place in the North Division, veterans brought in to help navigate swings of emotion, and a commanding 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.
Instead it was — brutally — more of the same. If not worse.
And now Toronto faces more uncomfortable questions in the wake of another post-season disaster, and the core of young stars that continues to stumble in the biggest moments.
Carey Price made 30 saves Monday as the Montreal Canadiens stormed back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Leafs 3-1 in Game 7 of a roller-coaster Original Six matchup.
"It's as hard as it gets," Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "The goals are higher than what we achieved.
"It makes the disappointment much worse."
WATCH | Canadiens eliminate Leafs:
The Canadiens, meanwhile, beat the odds and are off to the second round for the first time since 2015 after coming back to win a series down 3-1 for the third time in franchise history.
"We played Game 5, Game 6 the same way, we had our backs to the wall," Canadiens interim head Dominique Ducharme said. "It was just the same mindset, the same way to prepare.
"Our guys were in the right place, and even more confident than before because we just won those last two games."
Brendan Gallagher, Corey Perry and Tyler Toffoli, into an empty net, scored for the Canadiens. The visitors won a series after trailing 3-1 for the third time in franchise history. Eric Staal had two assists.
The Leafs, who haven't advanced in the post-season since 2004 and won three of the first four games against the Canadiens before Montreal took two straight in overtime to force the all-or-nothing showdown, got a late goal from William Nylander.
Jack Campbell stopped 20 shots.
"Not really sure how to sum it up," said Leafs centre and NHL regular-season goal leader Auston Matthews, who scored just once the series.
WATCH | Canadiens fans celebrate historic series win over Maple Leafs:
Montreal will take on Winnipeg after the Jets registered a surprising sweep of Connor McDavid's Edmonton Oilers in the Canadian-based North Division's other series. Game 1 goes Wednesday at Bell MTS Place in the Manitoba capital.
The Leafs, who never led on the scoreboard after going up 3-1 in the series, hosted 550 fully vaccinated health-care workers inside the 19,800-seat Scotiabank Arena to watch Game 7 after getting a thumbs up from the provincial government. The Canadiens welcomed 2,500 ticket-buying fans at Game 6 on Saturday at the Bell Centre — the first NHL crowd in this country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
Following a tentative first period, Montreal opened the scoring at 3:02 of the second on a sequence that started with a turnover by Mitch Marner at the offensive blue line. The Canadiens headed the other way, and Gallagher snapped his first goal since April 1 after missing six weeks with a broken thumb on a shot Campbell will want back through the five-hole.
The Leafs nearly tied it moments later when Price stopped Zach Hyman in tight before Auston Matthews ripped a shot off the post on a 2-on-1.
But the visitors would go up by two at 15:25 when Nick Suzuki's shot on a power play went off Perry in front for the veteran winger's second in as many games as Montreal struck on the man advantage for the third time in two contests after going 0 for 15 to start the series.
Price backstops Habs
The Leafs, who finished 18 points ahead of the Canadiens in this year's 56-game campaign and haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967, got a power play to start the third, but Price was there to deny Hyman on a redirect at the side of the goal.
Toronto pushed as the period wore on, but Price there to again foil Hyman off a behind-the-back pass from Matthews.
The Montreal goaltender was there again to thwart both Nylander and Matthews with massive stops on another Toronto man advantage with under nine minutes to go in regulation.
The home side pulled Campbell with 3:35 left, but a team that battled back from two-goal deficits in both Games 5 and 6 saw their hopes dashed when Toffoli scored into an empty net just over a minute later.
Nylander added team-high fifth of the series with 1:36, but Matthews and Marner were held to one total in seven games.
WATCH | How the Leafs-Habs playoff rivalry came to be:
The Leafs lost a Game 7 on home ice for just the second time in their history — Wayne Gretzky's 1993 Los Angeles Kings were the other club to pull off the feat — as Toronto fell to 11-2 all-time when leading a series 3-1.
Already without captain John Tavares (concussion, knee), the Leafs also had to do without defenceman Jake Muzzin (suspected groin injury) after he left Saturday's first period in obvious distress.
The Canadiens, who hadn't faced the Leafs in the playoffs since 1979, lost the only other Game 7 between the teams in 1964 when Dave Keon's hat trick led Toronto to a 3-1 victory at the Montreal Forum.
The Leafs' last series win, and the last Game 7 played between Canadian teams, was 17 years ago — 6,250 days to be exact — against Ottawa in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Toronto missed the playoffs seven straight years coming out of the 2004-05 lockout. The Leafs returned to the post-season in 2012-13 and led the Boston Bruins 4-1 in the third period of Game 7 that spring before stunning collapse.
There would be three more springs without playoff hockey to follow — Toronto bottomed out in 2015-16, but won the draft lottery and selected Matthews with the No. 1 pick — before a return in 2016-17. The young Leafs showed well in a hard-fought series against the Washington Capitals, but expectations were much higher the next two years when Toronto again lost to Boston in crushing seven-game defeats.
The Leafs were also eliminated from last summer's post-season bubble by the Columbus Blue Jackets in a five-game series that went the distance after the NHL schedule was postponed by the pandemic.
Toronto insisted the past was the past, but Montreal knew it was there.
"You're trying to create doubt in your opponent's mind," Gallagher said when asked about the pressure on the Leafs as the series progressed. "I don't know if they had it or not.
"It gives you confidence knowing there was an opportunity there."
Montreal took Game 1 of this series 2-1 on a night where Tavares was stretchered off the ice following a scary collision before being outscored 11-2 in losing the next three to fall behind Toronto 3-1, but fought back with a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 5 and a 3-2 OT decision 48 hours later.
The Leafs have now lost seven straight post-season series, and dropped eight straight contests where it could have eliminated an opponent.
That includes seven since 2018 with the core of Matthews, Marner and Nylander.
The teams paused for a moment of reflection prior to Monday's game following last week's discovery of the remains of 215 children who were forced to attend the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
WATCH | Moment of silence for residential school victims:
With files from CBC Sports