Maple Leafs' Game 7 loss not just another bump in the road

BOSTON — There’s an intersection between the hallway that leads to the ice and the two visitors’ dressing rooms where speakers are shepherded back and forth. One by one, they emerged from the safe space where one can shower and decompress in however manner they so choose before crossing the hallway and squeezing into the semi circle enclosed by those waiting to carefully ask questions in the opposite room.

Most of the raw emotion and real feeling and genuine anger was purposely left inside the safe area before Mitch Marner arrived, carrying with him some of the rage the Toronto Maple Leafs have to be sharing after they were eliminated in precisely the same manner in which they were last season: a Game 7 in Boston.

“It’s the same shitty feeling,” he said, honestly.

There were still promises to learn from the team’s third consecutive first-round exit and similar assertions that the Leafs will take something from the disappointment, while finding ways to improve. This is a young team, of course, and it’s still in the process of sorting things out.

And Marner echoed those stock responses — just with more realness.

“It has got to stay with us,” he said. “We have to be hungry for it next year and make sure we come back pissed off.”

(Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
(Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

But Tuesday’s 5-1 loss, and the second straight failure on the same exact stage and against the same foil, wasn’t just the next bump in the road and the nudge the Leafs needed to finally clear this hurdle. The expectations on this team were far greater than to chalk up another lesson and move on, and spinning it as anything less than a failure is choosing to not recognize the opportunity the organization had, and the real issues that lie ahead.

However, what the future might hold and how hockey operations might go about fixing the matters that plagued the Maple Leafs in this series wasn’t on the minds of those who couldn’t quite measure up once again versus the Bruins.

And while to a man, each player had to be experiencing the same feeling Marner described best, there are other timelines and other realities sinking in over in the safe room across the hall.

For a player like Patrick Marleau, while able to smile with a “them’s the breaks” attitude in the final moments of his 21st year, this postseason run was one of the few, if any, he has left.

“It never gets easier — that’s for sure. It stings still the same as always,” Marleau said. “And I’m still looking for that first Stanley Cup, so.”

There’s real reason to wonder for him, and he wasn’t the only one taking the wider view.

John Tavares followed Marleau, hopping on the moving train to chase a Stanley Cup with the up-and-coming core in Toronto. And after missing on his first chase with the Leafs, he couldn’t help but think about his own timeline when asked to put in words the disappointment he was feeling in the moment.

“I’m in my 10th year,” said John Tavares, after wrapping up the first season in his lucrative seven-year contract with the Maple Leafs. “So, these opportunities, you recognize and appreciate them more and more. You don’t take any of them for granted. You know how hard it is to win, and you never know when your time will be to make it happen.

“With the type of team we have, quality we have, depth we have, you want to maximize it, so it’s hard to grasp that. You’re disappointed. You want to make the most of this and we didn’t.”

Unlike last spring, when Jake Gardiner saved one of the worst games of his career for the biggest stage, there wasn’t an obvious choice to wear this loss — at least in a Leafs sweater. (The Mike Babcock talk we’ll save for another day.)

Allowing two regrettable goals, and seeing his record in Game 7s plunge to 0-4 with a save percentage hovering around 85 percent, netminder Frederik Andersen will be left with much to reflect on after another disappointing performance with a chance to elevate his team.

“I felt like we had a really good shot at it this year,” he said. “It’s tough to swallow. It will take some time to get over it. It sucks.”

When the squeeze tightens on the Leafs this summer, there will be a feeling of regret as players look back on duds in Games 4 and 6, and the opportunities the Leafs had to create the distance that was never actualized in the series.

And you can’t blame some for feeling an uneasiness about the future.

The Leafs are going to lose Jake Gardiner, and likely another piece to accommodate the money allocated for Auston Matthews and Marner. Marleau looked like a shell of himself in the postseason, and is delivering a net-negative on his $6.25-million salary. And we’re only two years away now from Andersen and the best player in the series for the Leafs, defenseman Morgan Rielly, seeing their team-friendly deals expire.

Pushing the third-best team in the NHL to seven games and pushing the pace themselves for large stretches throughout is, on its surface, far from a disastrous end to the season.

But the clock is ticking, and another lesson doesn’t mean it’s going to get any easier.

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