Because everything is outsized with the Leafs, the idea that they’ve been coughing up genuine chances at the Stanley Cup year-after-year has grown at the rate and scale of The Blob. Being the Leafs, everything around them is audibly multiplied by at least 12, so the sheer volume that is emitted from the Greater Toronto Area could convince anyone outside of it that they’d all impaled themselves on their sticks and just simultaneously waved their arms and legs about like distraught synchronized swimmers in playoff games for the past 54 years.
It’s not really the truth. They lost to the Bruins twice in seven games, who were almost certainly a better team than the Leafs both times. As comedic as those Game 7 losses were to anyone who doesn’t wear blue and white, losing in seven games by definition means the series was something of a coin flip. Last year, they lost in the play-in round in The Bubble, and any result in the bubble should just be accepted as something that… happened. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t count or the Lightning’s Cup should have some asterisk, it’s just that every result from The Bubble should just receive a, “Yeah, that makes sense,” kind of reaction. It didn’t adhere to common parameters.
So the sheer soundtrack of angst and indignity never really matched what happened on the ice. But it does now.
The Leafs evolved to true form by coughing up a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens, losing Game 7 at home — and in meek fashion — and providing fodder for their fanbase that’s always one step away from seppuku as long as enough people are watching. The Leafs played their worst game of the series in the most important one, which came after playing their worst game of the series when they could have closed it out at home in Game 5. Or taking two periods to wake up in Game 6.
So the most massive post-mortem in hockey will start in earnest, and the chatter will get utterly heinous. Calls for Mitch Marner or Auston Matthews to be dealt will merely be the opening bid. Firings, trades, massive upheaval, folding the franchise… we’re going to hear it all.
Any rational look at the Leafs would reveal that it was a bunch of little things that got them this time. The simplest explanation is that if John Tavares hadn’t been nearly decapitated in Game 1, and the Leafs don’t play that game in a concerned and distracted fog, they likely sweep. They certainly would have found the one goal they needed in Games 5-7 that would have ended it. That’s how the Leafs are built.
Of course, there will be a cavalcade of HOCKEY MEN trying to burst through the door screaming that injuries happen in the playoffs and you have to ride it out. That’s true. The Leafs’ top-heavy roster hasn’t left a lot of money on the cap to fill out a bottom six or other D-men than Morgan Rielly (and it’s up for debate how good he really is anyway). But that doesn’t mean they didn’t bone the decisions they’ve made at the bottom of the lineup. Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Nick Foligno, T.J. Brodie, Justin Holl, Zach Bogosian… just what the fuck were these guys supposed to do? They just made the Leafs slower, and this is one of the fastest teams in the league. Or were.
Yes, the Leafs don’t have a lot of money to spend, but you can find guys better than they have. You can develop them, too. The Leafs haven’t gotten meaningful minutes from any player taken in the last four drafts. That’s where you find the cheap talent to fill out your bottom six and bottom pairings. The Leafs haven’t done it, and their wonderboy GM Kyle “Rivers” Dubas is going to have to answer for that at some point.
It’s also led the Leafs to try and hipster their way to an answer in the goalie position. They couldn’t wait to tell you that they cracked the code with Jack Campbell, who had never been a starter in the NHL before. Campbell wasn’t bad in the series overall, but this did happen. And this. Or other goals where he lost track of the puck. The margins aren’t that big, especially when there’s a Hall of Famer at the other end getting back to Hall-of-Fame levels.
The gaps that keep the Leafs from being where they think they’re entitled to be aren’t that large. But everyone around them will act like they are. Which might just frighten the team into acting like it.