BOSTON—We tell children they shouldn’t believe in ghosts, and that’s true, but we don’t tell them you can be haunted all the same. The Toronto Maple Leafs have had some of their worst moments in Boston. Game 7s had not been kind. This is where hope, and seasons, have died.
And even with a team that believed it was ready for this moment, built for it, it happened again. The mistakes cost them; every little thing cost them. The Leafs built themselves up from last season, fortified the battlements, and climbed back to lose in this same game. Boston 5, Toronto 1, Bruins win the series 4-3. Season’s over.
Too many parts failed. The third-pair defencemen, coming back from or playing through injury, failed. The glittering forwards played well, but not well enough to score more than one goal. And goaltender Frederik Andersen, so good all series long, slipped enough, just enough. He had held the ceiling up all season, and through six games you couldn’t really say that any of the goals Boston had scored in this series were his fault.
Two of these goals were. They couldn’t afford it, and that was that.
And so, the off-season comes with a thud, in a sudden rush. This was the best of the three playoff teams in the Brendan Shanahan era. They added John Tavares and defenceman Jake Muzzin to a team filled with young stars who got, almost without exception, one year better.
They were better. Not enough.
The first mistake was a Travis Dermott clearing pass that went straight to a Bruin; they were still OK, but Joakim Nordstrom’s wrist shot from a very sharp angle somehow slid through Andersen in a space between his glove and his pad. That was on Freddie. The second mistake that cost was Jake Gardiner’s nightmare come alive again. He is playing through a back injury despite his looming free agency. You can see he’s not right. He could have shut this season down and watched, safe and dry.
But he played, and late in the second he was being chased and left a puck behind the Leafs net for nobody. Maybe he thought Auston Matthews was going to circle low behind him, but Matthews was in front. Maybe he saw a ghost. The puck was scooped up by Marcus Johansson, who scored both goals for Washington when they eliminated Toronto in 2017, and he wheeled out front and beat a partially screened Andersen.
It was 2-0, and everyone could feel the ground quaking. Gardiner was the last Leaf to touch a puck in the Game 7 collapse here in 2013; he was a minus-5 in Game 7 last year. His career with this team may be done, and this would be a sadly fitting way to end it. The margin of error in this series was so slender that you needed everybody.
Toronto got a goal in the second when Tyler Ennis, the fourth-line veteran, dug out the second of two pucks on the same monster shift to set up Tavares to make it 2-1. For the rest of the period, when their lesser defencemen weren’t handling pucks like live hand grenades, the Leafs had to work to avoid tying it up. The Tavares-Marner-Hyman line was a live wire; the fourth line was effective; Toronto was pushing. They just needed to get there without making a mistake.
And then in the third Tavares turned a puck over in the neutral zone, Ron Hainsey got treated like a traffic cone, Morgan Rielly hesitated for a second before stepping forward, and a Sean Kuraly wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circle beat Andersen high. He had to stop it, just had to. He didn’t.
After that, you could see some air come out of these Leafs. They didn’t pin the Bruins and push; they couldn’t. It was like they were chasing something that, deep down, they knew they couldn’t catch. The empty netters were formalities.
These Leafs had never played a playoff series quite like this one. Yes, Nazem Kadri got suspended again, but it was different. This wasn’t losing coin flips against the Washington Capitals until the Capitals found a higher gear. This wasn’t clawing back from a 3-1 series deficit after spending two games with all the poise of a first-time swimmer in a glacier lake. Toronto could have won this. They could have won it in Game 6, if they hadn’t stopped playing for half an hour.
No, this was different, until the end.
Back at the beginning, before everything happened again, general manager Kyle Dubas sat in his office next to a framed poster of Bill Belichick and was asked if his team’s Stanley Cup window was open. He tried to stay as vague as he could, a moving target, positive. But the demarcation point was clear.
“I think that we have a very talented group, and I think we have to earn the right for people to say (the championship window is open) about our group,” said Dubas, seven months before the Leafs landed in another Game 7. “They’ve been in that situation for a long time now, Tampa and Boston. In the regular season, game in and game out, we have to show we can challenge them there. I spent a lot of my time focusing in our division, and on our division.”
And eventually, he answered the question.
“I think you can say it’s open if we get into the year and we’re able to challenge and, hopefully, move past those teams.”
Tampa was already gone, and the Leafs couldn’t summit the Bruins. Last season, against the team with the fourth-best record in hockey, the Leafs blew three one-goal leads in Game 7 and were left empty. They got better; Boston got better. And they circled all the way back around the sun, and 363 days later, on a Tuesday night, they were in the same damned, indelible, monumental place.
They lost. Window’s closed. Check back next year, and try again.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur