Opinion: Pressure is on Toronto Maple Leafs after they fail to close out Montreal Canadiens
The Toronto Maple Leafs aren't actually doing this, right?
That's the question on every hockey fan's mind after the Maple Leafs squandered an opportunity to advance to the second round with Thursday's 4-3 overtime setback to the Montreal Canadiens.
After fighting back from a 3-0 hole to force OT, the Leafs – who took the ice at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena with a 3-1 series lead – quite literally threw the game away. Alex Galchenyuk's brutal turnover to Cole Caufield in the first minute of overtime initiated a 2-on-0 break that ended with Nick Suzuki putting the puck in the back of the net to cut the Canadiens' series deficit to 3-2 as action shifts back to Montreal.
Even in a vacuum the Game 5 setback was a punch in the gut. Of course, nothing the Toronto Maple Leafs do occurs in a vacuum.
Nick Suzuki (@nsuzuki_37) won't forget this one! Game 6, here they come. #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/fH8eSQonf9
— NHL (@NHL) May 28, 2021
No team in the NHL is under more pressure than the Maple Leafs, and few teams receive as much attention. Every mistake and every setback is heavily scrutinized by a hockey-mad market, and given more weight by the franchise's half-century of postseason futility.
In case you haven't heard: The Maple Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup since 1967, the last year of the NHL's "Original Six" era. They haven't even played for it since then. They have not won a playoff series at all since 2004.
This new era of the Maple Leafs was supposed to change things. Spearheaded by forwards Auston Matthews (first overall pick in 2016), Mitch Marner (fourth overall in 2015), William Nylander (eighth overall in 2014) and defenseman Morgan Rielly (fifth overall in 2012) the Leafs finally built a young, exciting core through the draft they'd been lacking for quite some time.
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The Maple Leafs broke through to the playoffs in Matthews' rookie year in 2016-17 and challenged the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in a tight six-game series that featured five overtime games.
They built on their success the next season, recording a franchise-record 105 points. And then they met the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.
A 7-4 setback at Boston's TD Garden in Game 7 was disappointing, but hardly shocking. Those 2018 Bruins were a great team and the Leafs winning Games 5 and 6 to even force a Game 7 was nice to see from a young team and seemed to portend better things ahead.
Toronto signed John Tavares – the first overall pick in the 2009 draft – that offseason ... and then lost to the Bruins in the first round in seven games, dropping Game 6 at home before falling 5-1 to the eventual Eastern Conference champs in Game 7 in Boston. In the Toronto bubble in 2020, the Leafs lost their best-of-five preliminary round series to the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games, getting shut out 3-0 in the finale.
Including Thursday's setback, the Leafs are now 0-5 over the past four seasons when they've been in a position to advance in the playoffs. Their record in games where they could move on since 2004 is 0-6 if you go back to include their infamous – and fanbase scarring – Game 7 collapse against the Bruins in 2013 ("It was 4-1," Leafs fans cry out everywhere).
Since 2016 this team has made moves both big and small and yet still haven't found the right formula to win a round.
Frankly, blowing a 3-1 series lead to a historic rival would be the most embarrassing playoff exit for this group yet.
But breaking the narrative is actually pretty simple: They just need to win Saturday night in Montreal – in what should be a fun atmosphere with a limited number of fans actually back in the building – with Matthews, Marner and Nylander leading the way.
Nylander has been doing his part. After a few years of so-so postseasons, he's been brilliant with seven points in five games, including four goals.
The Leafs need more from Matthews and Marner, though, especially with Tavares, their stalwart captain, still out following his frightening collision with Corey Perry in Game 1 of this series.
Matthews, the NHL's regular-season goals leader, has been quiet by his standards with just four points, including one goal, in the five games. Marner has four assists but no goals in the series. They're among the highest-paid players in the NHL; they simply have to produce if the Leafs are ever going to make a serious run.
It's a little silly to talk about "legacy" for players who aren't even 26 yet, but the fact of the matter is this: blowing a 3-1 lead in the first round, to this Canadiens team, after what's happened the past four years, would be a stain on this core only a Stanley Cup championship run could erase. And if they were to bow out early once again, it wouldn't be surprising to see a major change made that would prevent this group from making another run together.
But this kind of conversation is something the Maple Leafs can shut down entirely if they go out and take care of business Saturday night in Game 6. If the Leafs fail to close out a Habs team with pretty much nothing to lose again, they'll return to Toronto under an intense spotlight in a winner-take-all Game 7.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NHL scores: Maple Leafs fail to close out Canadiens in overtime loss