The Leafs exit without a goal in Game 5. Blame whoever you like, but this season was a waste of a whole lot of talent

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If you want the epitaph, they didn’t get better enough. The Toronto Maple Leafs ended their intermittent, disappointing season on Sunday night by getting shut out, but that can happen to anyone. Hit a hot goalie and it happens. Even to the greats.

But you push, right? You leave it all out there. The Leafs could have won Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They could have advanced to play a banged-up Tampa Bay team. They had chances. They hit the crossbar, hit the post, got hot shots from the slot, all that. The first period was domination, like in Game 1. The Leafs didn’t score in that game, either.

And then it didn’t get better. Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talked about staying with it, about how that is mental toughness. Well, the Leafs had their best chances in the first period and their worst chances in the third, where they blew a line change and their goalie made his one mistake. And that, in this pandemic-warped year, was enough to end a season.

“I think we had good performances from some people, and we had a group of others that I didn’t think performed at their best,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe, after a 3-0 loss in Game 5 of this best-of-five series. “That’s pretty typical. It’s rare to have everyone playing at their best. But I thought we had enough out of the people that were important, obviously with the exception of the puck going over the line.”

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Keefe gambled in this one. He jammed Auston Matthews and John Tavares and Mitch Marner together as a kind of super line. Keefe also said the second line was badly outplayed in Games 3 and 4. That was the Tavares-Nylander-Robertson line.

He lost. The top line was almost a five-on-five power play at times, and didn’t score. The rest of the lineup was, more than not, a bucket of blah. In Game 4, the Leafs had scored three goals in four minutes at six-on-five to save their season, but miracles aren’t easy to replicate. This Toronto team, glittering and star-studded, didn’t score a goal at five-on-five from the midway point of the third game of this series until the end. They scored three goals at five-on-five in five games.

Now, you can say that’s luck. Keefe did.

“It’s a good team. They don’t give you much. They stay absolutely fully committed to what they are, as a group,” he said. “If I reflect on this series for myself, I think there was lots of positives in this series, there were lots of things that we would have liked to have done better, lots of things that I would have liked to have done better.

“We really challenged our team coming into this to be better defensively, to give ourselves a chance and not beat ourselves. I think when I look at two of our three losses, here tonight and in Game 1, I think we did a really good job of that: playing a patient game, not beating ourselves, not giving up much.

“The difference in Games 1 and 5 obviously are three what I would call somewhat lucky goals, and we didn’t get quite the same level of luck around the net. Columbus defended extremely well and didn’t give us a great deal, but we had enough chances to score more goals than we did with the two shutouts that we had. So a little more luck and it might have been a different result.”

He noted Toronto had 152 shots on goal at five-on-five, and three went in. That’s almost impossibly bad. And to be fair, Keefe wasn’t entirely wrong. In the first period, Tavares had a near-empty net and looked at defenceman Seth Jones in the way, and considered his big feet and tried to slide the puck along the ice. Great chance. Toronto had a ton of chances in the first period and into the second.

“My hand slipped just a tad,” said Tavares. “Still got good wood on it, and unfortunately it was still a half an inch, a quarter of an inch, too much to the right, and didn’t hit the post and go in, or just sneak in on the right side.”

His hand slipped. Matthews had a league-leading 27 shots on goal, and Tavares was second at 24, and they scored a combined four times, and one came on a power play.

“Tonight, it’s a game of inches out there, and we had some chances, the puck didn’t go in the net,” said Matthews. “And it’s obviously a tough pill to swallow. It’s very disappointing.”

“S— happens, I guess,” was how Columbus coach John Tortorella put it.

Yeah, it does. Columbus’s goalies were exceptional — Joonas Korpisalo, then Elvis Merzlikins, then Korpisalo in Game 5 — and that happens, too. Ask Alexander Ovechkin, who lost more than one 2-1 game to Henrik Lundqvist in his prime. And after Columbus’s lucky goal to open the scoring, Andersen shouldn’t have let the second goal in, and Matthews and Tavares and Justin Holl shouldn’t have gone to the bench and left Columbus’s Liam Foudy alone. Andersen had held it close all game long, and he made one mistake. As in Game 1, it was enough.

Toronto controlled stretches of the series, had more shots on goal, had better opportunities, had more offensive talent. And yes, Jake Muzzin got hurt, and Tyson Barrie joined him, and any defence with Martin Marincin and Cody Ceci prominently involved is in trouble. That all hurt, too.

But this season was a waste, and it wasn’t just because the Leafs got unlucky in Game 5, or for that matter in the series. The stuff general manager Kyle Dubas should want back is obvious. The Barrie trade was a disaster in the end. The backup goalie situation helped sink them in the standings. Coach Mike Babcock should have been fired last summer, when it was clear he didn’t align with the front office. All that contributed to having to play in a qualifying series at all.

For all the riches this team and its stars possess, literally and metaphorically, they didn’t give themselves every opportunity. They blew a pile of winnable games that weren’t just the goalie. As late as February, Muzzin was saying, “We’ve got to find the urgency, the passion, the love of the game, the love to compete for each other. All of that needs to come. I don’t know why it’s not there. I think sometimes, like I’ve touched on earlier, when we struggle, we want the easy game. When you play good teams it’s not going to be easy.” As late as March, Matthews was saying they weren’t all 100 per cent in.

And when they faced a Columbus team that was, they lost.

Look, maybe you discount this whole thing a little, and maybe a lot, if only because the pandemic scrambled everything. This is, for almost everybody on earth, a very weird year.

“Comparing it to a loss in Boston, this one’s different for sure, for obvious reasons,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly, who played his heart out flying all over the ice. “Whether that makes it easier or worse to deal with, I don’t know.”

But that was the deal, and it wasn’t like the Leafs were playing an overwhelming favourite this time: Columbus, like the Leafs, had 81 points in 70 games. The Leafs were sealed off from the city and media that can supposedly suffocate them. This wasn’t anything but hockey, and everything that entails.

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And if they’re not flat in Game 1, if they don’t blow the three-goal lead in Game 3, this goes another way. But all season long the Leafs, from front office to roster, didn’t give themselves enough margin for error.

So another year’s gone. The salary cap never stops, but you don’t have to break up this core, as tempting as some of it is. There is growth here. A full year under Keefe will help. This Cup chase isn’t over, not by a long shot. Dubas and Keefe have a lot of runway left. Next year is another chance.

But now the Leafs have a 12.5 per cent chance at another No. 1 pick, and Alexis Lafrenière, on Monday night. This series was the cumulation of everything that came before it, of a season wasted, and so the end wasn’t really a surprise, was it? Maybe it should have been, but it wasn’t. They didn’t get better enough, and that’s probably the toughest part of all.

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