It wasn't a 2013 collapse, but this Game 7 loss to Bruins was close
Elimination sets up a summer of questions for Maple Leafs
As the visiting team at TD Garden in Boston, you never want to hear the tune Dirty Water by the Standells in the handshake line after a playoff series.
That's the Boston Bruins' victory song, and for the second time in five years, this was the song playing on the public address system Wednesday after a hard-fought, seven-game series between the Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Jake DeBrusk and Torey Krug scored goals four minutes and five seconds apart early in the third period to push Boston to an eventual 7-4 come-from-behind victory and a spot in the second round against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Maybe this agony of defeat doesn't sting as much as in 2013 when the Maple Leafs blew a 4-1 lead in the final 12 minutes to lose the deciding game in overtime. But this devastation was close.
Sure, the Maple Leafs can point to progress being made. They lost in six games in the first round to the Washington Capitals a year ago. This time it was a seven-game series.
Expectations were high, just like in 2013, because the Maple Leafs erased a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7. In the finale, they had leads of 1-0, 2-1 and ultimately 4-3 after two periods.
Then Krug drifted home a point shot 1:10 into the third that appeared to be deflected. Shortly after, DeBrusk bulled his way around Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner and beat goalie Frederik Andersen through the pads for the game-winner, the second of the game for the 21-year-old left winger from Edmonton.
The Maple Leafs never did recover after DeBrusk's second goal. All they could muster was a measly eight shots in the closing 20 minutes, and not a single scoring chance.
"We came into the third period in a great spot," Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. "If you go through the last 10 minutes of the second, we played really well. We controlled it. There was no reason for us not to continue in the third.
"Even when we got down one in the third, there still were lots of minutes. But once they got the next one, mentally we weren't there."
Babcock always likes to talk about the opportunity that a big game like Wednesday evening presents to players and that they should enjoy the moment. But this was an opportunity missed by the Maple Leafs and there was nothing enjoyable about the way they collapsed in this sloppy, but wild and entertaining, outing.
There are no guarantees in the NHL. Just ask the Edmonton Oilers who, with two-time league scoring leader Connor McDavid, couldn't even make the playoffs after advancing to the second round a year ago. Ditto for the Ottawa Senators, who missed the playoffs after coming within a whisker of going to the Stanley Cup final last spring.
Will Andersen be as good next season as he was this one? Can Auston Matthews shake off what was a middling post-season?
This defeat only adds to all the heartache for the long-suffering Maple Leafs supporters. They don't have to be reminded that last Friday was the 14th anniversary of the most recent time the Maple Leafs won a playoff series — in the first round against Ottawa in 2004. In a week, on May 2, the Toronto's Stanley Cup drought will reach 51 drawn-out years.
Now it's on to what will be an interesting off-season.
Will 75-year-old general manager Lou Lamoriello, whose contract is up, remain with the club?
Which unrestricted free agents among James van Riemsdyk, Tomas Plekanec, Leo Komarov, Dominic Moore and Roman Polak will be re-signed?
There are also some valuable restricted free agents to re-sign in William Nylander, Andreas Johnsson and Connor Carrick.
It's no secret the Maple Leafs need to improve and build a more physical defence. A couple of top-four defencemen would be nice. Morgan Rielly had a wonderful series. Nikita Zaitsev and Travis Dermott are young and developing in the right direction.
What the Maple Leafs do with the smooth-skating, but mistake-prone, Gardiner will be interesting. He was one of the holdovers from the 2013 debacle. He had a plus-minus rating of minus-five in the series finale five years later. He is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
There was growth with this team. But the loss still stings.
"Right now you're emotional," Babcock said. "They might be able to look back in a couple of days. But right now you can't say anything. Keep your mouth shut."