Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev battles with Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Cal Foote during the third period of game seven of the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena.Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

There are a lot of names on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Post-Season Enemies List. Most of them are Toronto Maple Leafs.

In another ill-fated Game 7 on Saturday night, they added an unlikely one – Tampa Bay’s Nicholas Paul.

Paul was raised in Mississauga, Ont., and a grew up a Leafs fan. He’s one of those up-by-his-bootstraps NHLers. He’s spent more professional time riding buses in the AHL than flying charters in the bigs. He’s a third-line guy, an energy guy.

But for one night in Toronto, Paul turned into Gordie Howe.

He scored two remarkable goals against the Leafs. The first was a muscular stab that caught Morgan Rielly looking the wrong way on a rebound. The second was a bullrush around and through T.J. Brodie.

Even with Paul’s out-of-body experience, the Leafs still had endless opportunities to even things up. That’s when Tampa handed the team controller to goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Russian put in one of those “robot sent from the future” playoff performances that are his signature, while his teammates lay back and absorbed pressure.

The last 10 minutes of the game viewed like a drunk chasing a sober man around, trying and repeatedly failing to land a punch.

It ended 2-1. Tampa moves on to play a Florida Panthers team that looks ripe for the picking.

The Leafs led this series 3 games to 2. For a while there in Game 6, they looked as if they might find a way through. They had it tied on Saturday night as well. But once again, they could not close.

So that’s it. Leafs fans will now be scouring the internet trying to figure out if the number 19 is auspicious. It’ll be at least that many years since Toronto won a first-round series.

This time wasn’t as painful as seasons past. There was no third-period collapse or shocking howler that turned the game. Instead, the Leafs were ground down by a better, smarter team.

If the fans on hand were anything to go by, they accepted another failure dully. No booing or raging. Just bovine calm. “As long as no one was embarrassed” – the Leafs’ 21st-century motto.

As these things go in this city with this hockey club, it wasn’t awful. That’s the problem.

The Leafs have gone so far down their own rabbit hole that managing not to humiliate themselves qualifies as a sort of win.

The players made sure to look and sound chagrined when they came out afterward. Auston Matthews was so downcast you’d have thought he was speaking at a funeral.

But their words didn’t match up with the mournful presentation.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Rielly. “We’re getting somewhere.”

“Worked all year to be ready for these opportunities, and I think we were,” said John Tavares. “Just such a fine line.”

“We were right there,” said Matthews.

Right where, exactly?

The Leafs can’t wrap their heads around the proposition that good teams win. Almost winning doesn’t count. If you don’t win, you are not good, by definition.

The Leafs put up more regular-season points this year than any before. They have the best goal-scorer in the game. They’ve got no obvious holes in the roster.

Given that, recent history suggests the Leafs are not a team on the rise. They’re a team that should have already risen.

“I just told them they had lots of reasons to be proud,” coach Sheldon Keefe said afterward.

That’s what coaches do – make guys who’ve lost feel better about themselves. But I’m not sure this should be how you lead off the introduction to your long-running series, How We Blew It Again (Part 17).

For a while there, Keefe managed to avoid stumbling into the “we’re right there” button. But let any Leaf talk long enough and he’ll find it.

“We’re a lot closer than it appears,” he said.

There you go.

You are beginning to suspect that the Leafs main problem has nothing to do with the individual talent. It’s the group perspective.

When they feel like it, the Leafs are the swaggering alphas of the Canadian sports landscape. Were an alien to sit through the endless, hagiographic video montages that precede every home game, he’d think he was about to bear witness to the greatest team since the Roman Empire.

But once it goes wrong again, the Leafs want to play by Pee-Wee rules. They go looking around for their Participation ribbons.

“This one hurts more, because this was a really good team that played hard,” Keefe said.

Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize all the guys making millions of dollars had tried. Uh, well, I guess then congratulations are in order.

The Leafs did try. They were mostly good, and occasionally very good, against an excellent team.

If the goal here is to be competitive, then great job. They did that.

If the goal is winning a Stanley Cup, they went head first into the first hurdle. Nowhere close to good enough.

Though the core is still young, every one of these losses adds dog years to this team. A championship window that only opened up a couple of seasons ago already feels like it’s starting to close. But the Leafs, losers again, are still talking like the past two weeks was their big coming-out party.

When you lose a close one in seven games, there’s always going to be a good excuse. Sooner or later – or maybe never – the Leafs are going to figure out that history won’t judge you by the quality of your excuses. History only remembers teams that didn’t need any such thing.