Another Toronto Maple Leafs season died in Boston and another long summer of second-guessing began on Tuesday evening.
The last rites officially were given to the Maple Leafs at 9:33 p.m. ET as history repeated itself. The Boston Bruins were the victors in a critical Game 7 for the third time at TD Garden since 2013.
This outcome, a 5-1 decision thanks to a pair of late-game empty-net goals, was just as devastating as the third period collapses in 2013 and last spring.
This Maple Leafs team had an improved roster. Rookie general manager Kyle Dubas added a talented free agent in 47-goal scorer John Tavares and a Stanley Cup-winner before the trade deadline in defenceman Jake Muzzin.
But the result was the same, another year of agony for the Maple Leafs and their faithful. The Stanley Cup drought will hit 52 years on May 2, the anniversary of the franchise’s last championship in 1967. Toronto hasn’t won a single playoff series since 2004.
Mike Babcock’s side was the better team through the first two periods. But the Maple Leafs found themselves behind 2-1 after 40 minutes.
Andersen not sharp
Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen was not sharp. In hindsight, he should have held on to the puck for a whistle on the first goal. But he moved it, leading to a giveaway from Maple Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott and a bad-angle goal from Boston’s Joakim Nordstrom late in the first period.
Marcus Johansson took advantage of a turnover from Dermott’s defence partner Jake Gardiner a few shifts later to give Boston a 2-0 lead.
“I thought we played real good until it was 3-1,” Babcock said. “We carried lots of the play, we executed and played the way we wanted to play.
“It’s disappointing because I thought our series, compared to last year, we were a way better hockey club and we weren’t rewarded. I think we’re taking steps in the right direction.
“It’s disappointing for our group. It’s part of the scars and pain you feel in building a franchise.”
Babcock often talks about “the process” and “the opportunity” when discussing his team. But it was the Bruins who were opportunistic.
Andersen certainly helped the opposition’s cause with a poor outing after he played so well in the first six games of the series.
The Nordstrom goal was weak. Bruins fourth-line forward Sean Kuraly caught Andersen napping on a 30-foot shot to make it 3-1 early in the third period. It didn’t help matters that the Tavares line was at the end of a long shift and the Morgan Rielly-Ron Hainsey defence pairing had just hopped over the boards and were caught backing in.
Window to win getting smaller
Andersen now has a career 0-4 in Game 7s. But Babcock’s recent record in crucial games is not good either. He has lost his last five potential series-clinching games, dating back to his days at the helm of the Detroit Red Wings.
The Bruins, who will meet the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round, had a relatively stress-free finish after the Kuraly goal.
Gardiner, who was playing hurt, finished a minus-three on the evening to push his plus-minus rating to minus-10 in his three Game 7s in Boston.
The Maple Leafs power play also let Toronto down. It went 0-for-5 in the final two games of the series.
You could see the disappointment on the face of Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan when television cameras spied on him late in the game.
He and Dubas have built a young and talented team. But windows to win in the NHL are small these days because of the monster second contracts to young, talented players.
Dubas and his management team have to figure out how to improve the roster and keep the key players under the constraints of the salary cap.
Gardiner, Hainsey, fourth-line forward Tyler Ennis and backup goalie Michael Hutchinson are slated to become unrestricted free agents this summer. But the difficult negotiations will be with the trio of restricted free agents in Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.
This will play out in the days, weeks and months to come in what will be another long summer for Maple Leafs and their deflated fan base.