Maple Leafs lose first round, lack of killer instinct among reasons

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens, losing 3-1 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup First Round at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Monday.

Despite finishing first in the Scotia North Division (35-14-7), 18 points ahead of the fourth-place Canadiens (24-21-11), the Maple Leafs were eliminated after building a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series. They have not won a playoff series since 2004.

Here’s a look at what happened during the 2021 postseason for the Maple Leafs and why things could be even better next season:

The Skinny

Potential unrestricted free agents: Frederik Andersen, G, David Rittich, G, Zach Bogosian, D, Ben Hutton, D, Martin Marincin, F, Zach Hyman, F, Nick Foligno, F, Joe Thornton, F, Jason Spezza, F, Riley Nash, F, Wayne Simmonds, F, Alex Galchenyuk, F, Stefan Noesen, F.

Potential restricted free agents: Travis Dermott, D, Nic Petan, F.

Potential 2021 NHL Draft picks: 3

What went wrong 

Top scorers fizzled: Mitchell Marner led the Maple Leafs and finished fourth in the NHL with 67 points (20 goals, 47 assists) in 55 games. Auston Matthews was second on Toronto and fifth in the NHL with 66 points in 52 games, including an NHL-high 41 goals to win the Rocket Richard Trophy. The postseason was a different story. Matthews and Marner combined to score one goal in the series, by Matthews in Game 2. That’s one less than defenseman Jake Muzzin, who scored four goals during the regular season. Matthews (35) and Marner (19) totaled 54 shots on goal but their lack of finish ultimately handicapped the Maple Leafs in the end.

No killer instinct: The Maple Leafs are 0-8 in series-clinching games since 2018. They had three opportunities to finish off the Canadiens. Not only could they not do it, they did not hold a lead for the remainder of the series.

Injuries: Captain John Tavares was lost for the remainder of the series with a knee injury and concussion sustained in Game 1. Foligno (undisclosed) missed three games and had one assist in four. Muzzin, the most physical of Toronto defensemen, sustained a lower-body injury in Game 6 and was ruled out for a minimum three weeks. His presence was missed in Game 7, especially when it came to keeping Montreal forwards away from the front of the net.

Reasons for optimism 

It’s Campbell time: Andersen’s knee injury sustained during the regular season opened the door for Jack Campbell, and he took advantage. The 29-year-old goalie set an NHL record for wins to start a season with 11, breaking the mark of 10 set by Montreal’s Carey Price in 2016-17. Though Campbell took the blame for Brendan Gallagher‘s five-hole goal that opened the scoring in Game 7, his postseason numbers (1.81 goals-against average, .934 save percentage) were solid. With Andersen eligible to become an unrestricted free agent and not expected to return, Campbell should be the Maple Leafs’ No. 1 goalie next season.

Willie Styles: Thornton gave William Nylander the nickname “Willie Styles” for his flamboyant fashion statements. Nylander made his own on-ice statement against the Canadiens. The 25-year-old was arguably the Maple Leafs’ best skater and led them with eight points (five goals, three assists). Those five goals equaled what he scored in his previous 25 NHL postseason games. 

Youth will be served: A couple of talented prospects likely will get full-time roles with the Maple Leafs next season. Defenseman Rasmus Sandin quarterbacked their top power-play unit late in the season and showed impressive composure for a 21-year-old with four assists in nine regular-season games and one goal in five playoff games. Nicholas Robertson is a 19-year-old forward, who led the Ontario Hockey League with 55 goals for Peterborough in 2019-20. He had one assist in six games for the Maple Leafs and 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 21 games for Toronto in the American Hockey League this season.

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