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What went wrong for the Maple Leafs in their first round exit against the Bruins

BOSTON — Another season. Another first round exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

For the seventh time in the past eight seasons, the Leafs were eliminated in the first round, this time at the hands of the Boston Bruins in seven games.

The Leafs rallied from a 3-1 series deficit without Auston Matthews, but ultimately fell to the Bruins in Game 7 in a bitter repeat of history. The Leafs also lost first-round series to the Bruins in 2013, 2018 and 2019 in seven games.

The series was lost early on as the Bruins dominated on special teams and in goal.

The Leafs’ collection of stars could never tilt the series in their favor, although injuries played a role, with William Nylander and Matthews missing large chunks of the series.

Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly didn’t deliver much offensively. And while John Tavares had a strong run defensively, he finished with just one goal and two points.

In short, it was a familiar postseason for the Leafs in too many ways.

go deeper

GO DEEPER

How the Maple Leafs let Game 7 slip away: 4 takeaways


Problems with power play

It’s hard to decide which special teams unit was the most disruptive to the losing effort: the penalty kill or power play.

Considering the personnel, it’s probably the power play, which failed again and again at crucial moments.

The Leaves scored only once in 18 opportunities, missing opportunity after opportunity to get games, especially early in the series. For example, the Leafs trailed 1-0 early in the second period of Game 1 and had a four-on-three power play that resulted in multiple opportunities for Tavares that would fall through.

The Bruins soon after exploded for three goals in the same period to run away with the series opener.

Guy Boucher led the power play in his first season as an assistant coach with the Leafs and couldn’t find answers to what ailed the unit when it stumbled in March and then, even more damaging, in April.

The Leafs were not without opportunities on the power play, some of which were glorious opportunities. They just couldn’t cash in.

“It’s been a big factor in this series,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said before Game 6.

From Matthews to Nylander, Tavares and Marner, the Leafs’ star players have struggled time and again to capitalize on their power play opportunities in the postseason. Tavares had the only power play goal in all series.

It was only his third power-play goal in the playoffs as a Leaf.

The Leafs went 0-for-1 in Game 7.

Penalty killing issues

The power play issues wouldn’t have been as damaging if the Leafs had a penalty kill that made more stops, especially in Games 1-4 when discipline was an issue.

Boston scored six power play goals against the Leaf penalty kill. At times the Leafs couldn’t get a stick in a passing lane. Other times they failed to clear the puck when they had the opportunity to do so. Other times they couldn’t save.

With one exception, when they needed a stop on the PK, the Leafs couldn’t get it. Just like in Game 4, down 1-0 in the second period when Brad Marchand nailed a one-timer. Or in Game 3, with the score tied and Tyler Bertuzzi in the penalty box for a foul, Jake DeBrusk gave the Bruins a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

The Leafs stopped taking bad penalties in Games 5, 6 and 7, limiting exposure on the penalty kill, but by that point it was too late.

This wasn’t a new problem for the Leafs.

They were among the NHL’s worst teams at killing penalties during the regular season. That wasn’t a huge surprise after an offseason in which first-year general manager Brad Treliving and team president Brendan Shanahan failed to replace the veteran penalty killers from the previous season.

Keefe and assistant coach Dean Chynoweth had no choice but to use a slew of penalty killers in the NHL, including Matthews, Pontus Holmberg, Nylander, Matthew Knies and Bobby McMann.

Meanwhile, TJ Brodie, once a crucial part of the penalty kill, declined rapidly in the regular season and was scratched in six of the seven games against the Bruins.

The front office didn’t bring in any substantial replacements at the trade deadline, just a big and sturdy defense in Joel Edmundson and Ilya Lyubushkin and the largely inexperienced Connor Dewar up front.

The Leafs had John Klingberg’s LTIR money on hand and opted not to spend it on a meaningful top-four replacement.

Stars fall short – again

The Leafs stars, who reunited last spring after another postseason disappointment, ultimately failed to deliver enough when it mattered. Matthews played like an MVP in a Game 2 win, but was subsequently felled by illness and injury.

go deeper

GO DEEPER

Auston Matthews is unlikely to play Game 5 for the Maple Leafs

Matthews left Game 4 after two periods when team doctors pulled him from the game due to illness. He did not play in Games 5 and 6 due to injury. It’s no surprise that the team suffered. The Leafs were very dependent on Matthews’ goals. He accounted for nearly one per game over the final four and a half months of the regular season. He finished with one in the series and added three assists.

Tavares defended well in a matchup assignment against Bruins superstar David Pastrnak and was the driving force behind Knies’ Game 5 overtime winner. But otherwise he was limited in his offensive contributions.

More detrimental to the Leafs: another lukewarm playoff for Marner. He did not have a single multi-point performance in all series and scored only once. Playing without Nylander and Matthews, the Leafs needed more from Marner, the NHL’s seventh-leading scorer over the past four regular seasons.

Marner is eligible to sign an extension with the Leafs on July 1. Now, in the wake of another disappointing season, his future with the team will become one of the biggest, if not the biggest, storylines of the offseason.

The Leafs didn’t have Nylander around for the first three games of the series for reasons that both he and the team chose not to clarify until after Game 7.

“I had a migraine,” Nylander explained, adding that there was a fear of a concussion and his vision being affected. “When I started feeling better, they let me play,” he added.

Nylander returned for Game 4 and initially struggled before scoring both Leaf goals in a Game 6 win and the lone Leafs goal in Game 7.

As a result of their stars being unable to break through against a stiff Boston defense, the Leafs struggled to score on any series. They scored more than two just once, with three goals in a Game 3 win. This from a team that trailed only the Colorado Avalanche in goals during the regular season. This – a high-powered offense – would be the Leafs’ only advantage over the Bruins.

“It’s very clear: Teams play the Leafs, they set up the game for the Leafs to beat themselves,” Keefe said after Game 7. “And I thought we did that in Games 3 and 4. We beat ourselves with the way what we played on. At home.”

A lack of offense during the playoffs could ultimately cost Keefe his job as head coach. That and the repeated battle for supremacy in the play-offs.

Keefe is the most effective regular season coach the Leafs have ever had, third among all active NHL head coaches in points percentage.

But while his teams have won big and scored in bunches during the regular season, as Leafs coach they have struggled time and again to break through in the more space-poor setting of playoff hockey.

The two-year contract extension that Keefe signed last August will take effect next season.

The Leafs’ best player in last year’s playoffs, Rielly, had less impact this time around, perhaps slowed by the puck-movement restrictions of his partner, Lyubushkin. A lack of capable puck movers on the back end certainly played a role in the team’s struggles on offense.

In all series, Boston made it difficult for the Leafs to break through the neutral zone and then generate high-risk shooting opportunities in the zone.

The Leafs allowed just one goal from their defense the entire series. It was scored by Jake McCabe.

Depth never materialized

Bertuzzi and Max Domi, two players the front office focused on last summer to provide a secondary offensive punch in the playoffs, provided some help on that front, especially in Matthews’ absence. But not enough: Bertuzzi, the most likely goalscorer after the big four forwards, scored just once. Both players suffered from penalties early in the series, with Brad Marchand in particular suffering.

The fact that Tavares had to play a very defensive role in this series at all was related to the selection process.

The Leafs never replaced Ryan O’Reilly on the third line after the last offseason, choosing not to fill the need during the season even though it was clear it was a problem.

That left the inexperienced Holmberg in a third-line center position that was beyond his capabilities (especially attacking ability). Holmberg wasn’t even in the team at the start of the season.

Signed by Treliving in one of his first moves as GM, David Kämpf rarely left the fourth line all season and only for defensive purposes in the playoffs. Ryan Reaves, who signed a three-year deal alongside Klingberg during the opening hours of free agency, had minimal impact on the series.

Unsurprisingly, the Leafs got virtually no offense from their bottom two lines. Actually only one goal from Kämpf in Game 1.


Ilya Samsonov was cleverly cleared by the Bruins’ goalkeepers. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today)

Losing the battle in the goal

The other big problem for the Leafs all series: their goaltending was far inferior to the Bruins early in the series.

Ilya Samsonov was handily outplayed by Jeremy Swayman (mostly) and Linus Ullmark. Samsonov’s worst moment of the series came in Game 3. Knies had just scored in the second period to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead in their first game at home.

Just over four minutes later, Trent beat Frederic Samsonov with a nothing shot to tie the game.

The Leafs would no longer lead Game 3.

Joseph Woll was excellent in winning Games 5 and 6, but by that point it was too late for the Leafs and he missed Game 7 with an injury. Samsonov returned to the net for Game 7 and played well. But not good enough.

Another failure in the postseason should spark change for the Leafs. Exactly how much change is really a question, and some of it could come down to how much change Keith Pelley, the new president of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, desires.

Pelley’s first order of business should be to determine Shanahan’s fate — and by extension, Treliving’s fate as GM and whether the top of the roster will finally change.

Shanahan’s teams have won one playoff round in ten seasons.

This wasn’t the best of those teams. Far from it. But it was still a team that should have done more than this.

(Photo by John Tavares: Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)