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Maple Leafs report cards: Another season ends in heartbreak with Game 7 loss

Throughout the entire Maple Leafs regular season, whether it was their star players taking serious leaps, or the franchise-record 115 points, it genuinely felt like this team was different.

But unfortunately, the end result was hardly different at all.

With a heartbreaking 2-1 loss in Game 7 against the Lightning, during which continually questionable refereeing hurt the Leafs, their season is over. The franchise’s first playoff round win since 2004 still eludes them.

This was probably as close a game as the Leafs lost all season, which was undoubtedly an improvement from the final game of their playoff runs in 2020 and 2021.

Though right now, that might not serve as much consolation for Leafs fans.

“Hard to fathom,” said John Tavares postgame, echoing what Leafs fans around the world were probably saying to themselves. 

First star

Mitch Marner 

Marner looked nothing like the player in Game 7 against Montreal a year ago. If this game was indeed a battle of wills, Marner brought his.

Throwing a hit on Victor Hedman seconds after puck drop was the first encouraging sign for Marner. He was pesky in his attempts to break up plays with his stick in the neutral zone, and dynamic with the puck in the offensive zone to the point that every time he had it on his stick, it felt like the Leafs would have a serious scoring chance.

That much was evident on the Leafs’ first goal when he moved with his head up through the neutral zone to feed the puck to Auston Matthews. His effort in the third period was eye-opening, particularly when he danced around in the offensive zone in the third period and drew a penalty. He hit the post with a shot as well.

Full credit to Marner for overcoming his poor performance against the Canadiens last season. He took the Leafs on his back in Game 7, and his 81 percent 5-on-5 Expected Goals spoke to that.

Second star

Jack Campbell  

Campbell showed up with one of the more inspiring games of his Leafs career, especially considering he looked banged up after Lightning forward Nick Paul crashed into him. He looked on his game during a first period penalty kill, using his reflexes to make a number of quick saves. Those saves kept coming and I don’t think the two goals against can really be held against him. It’s a cliched term, but with his saves from in tight, Campbell battled, and gave the team in front of him a chance to win. He ended up stopping 23-of-25 shots against.

Third star

Auston Matthews

Matthews continued his dominant series, throwing his weight around like a man possessed. When the Leafs needed to play desperate, Matthews did that with his physicality. He looked a little more like a playmaker than one of the league’s best shooters at times, throwing a perfect pass to Morgan Rielly for the Leafs’ first goal and then moving the puck effectively afterward.

It felt like Matthews was going to be the one to turn things for the Leafs as he logged a team-high 25:04 TOI, had four shots on goal and won 62 percent of his faceoffs.


Player reports 

A-

Morgan Rielly

Some excellent movement from Rielly along the blue line helped keep the puck in the offensive zone during a first period power play, but there will undoubtedly be some Leafs fans who take issue with his defending close to the net on Paul’s first-period goal.

But hey, no Leafs fan would take issue with his perfectly-placed shot for the Leafs’ first goal, will they?

He ended up logging a team-high five shots on goal.

B+

Jake Muzzin

Typically calm, purposeful play from Muzzin as he tried to dictate play in the offensive zone. He wanted to create chaos in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy and led the Leafs with three shots on goal through two periods. You could argue that might be a problem for the Leafs, but it did feel like Muzzin was doing his part offensively.

Not clearing the puck out of the Leafs zone ahead of Paul’s second goal is undoubtedly a play he’d like to have back, for one reason in particular:

TJ Brodie 

Some excellent physical play from Brodie along the boards during a first period penalty kill allowed the Leafs to clear the puck out of the defensive zone. He was consistently in the right places defensively and blocked shots when he needed to.

Seeing Paul dance around him for the Lightning’s second goal undoubtedly stung for Leafs fans though. 

Jason Spezza

Spezza, in his limited time, dug in to fight for loose pucks and threw hits to motivate his teammates.

I know it can feel like the entire City of Toronto gushes over Spezza day and night, but, man, I feel for Spezza, ending another season without a Stanley Cup.

William Nylander

Nylander’s inability to properly play the puck out of his own zone caused a few moments of panic. He ended up with a few excellent chances, including his breakaway in the second period. (After he broke through what could be called an interference call on Cal Foote, but, anyway.)

Oh, and if somehow you didn’t see this one:

It looked as if Nylander could turn the tide for the Leafs as he brought the puck close to the Lightning goal multiple times.

B

Mark Giordano

Giordano’s active stick helped slow down a few Lightning rushes. And he got in the way of Lightning shots when he needed to as well. 

John Tavares

Tavares deployed a competitive brand of hockey from the start. It felt fitting that it would be him, then, who would score the Leafs first goal before it was called back. He moved the puck pretty well all game and won 67 percent of his faceoffs.

Michael Bunting

Bunting’s play was highlighted by some smart, short passes to keep the Leafs moving quickly into the offensive zone.

Pierre Engvall 

A good burst of speed early on allowed Engvall to nearly create a clear scoring chance for his line. I thought he was engaged enough throughout the game.

B-

Alex Kerfoot 

Midway through the first period, Kerfoot read a play well in the offensive zone, intercepted the puck and created a clear scoring chance with a quick pass. He drew a penalty minutes later to give the Leafs their first power play of the game. Kerfoot was less noticeable as the game wore on, likely in no small part because of how much Sheldon Keefe relied on his top line.

C+

Ilya Lyubushkin

Lyubushkin’s consistent efforts to be hard on pucks were influential more often than not. 

Colin Blackwell

Once again, Blackwell didn’t play like a 5-foot-9 forward, running around and throwing his body into harm’s way to try and create chaos.

C

David Kampf

Kampf has looked like an offensive presence in this series. But while he did his typical defensive work throughout Game 7, he didn’t log a single shot on goal. His 26 percent 5-on-5 Expected Goals was a team-low.

Ondřej Kase

Save for a few quick touches of the puck to advance the play, I didn’t see a lot of notable plays from Kase. He was beat off the puck a few times.

Ilya Mikheyev

Mikheyev had an iffy moment or two in his own zone but played with his typical pace in the offensive zone. The Leafs needed more offence across the board and Mikheyev ended up recording two shots on goal.

He grew into the game, and he had chances, but came up short offensively, as did a few Leafs.

Justin Holl

Was Holl’s second period penalty that saw a Tavares goal called off indeed interference? I’d put it somewhere between “Maybe?” and “Who knows anymore?” though it looked accidental. But the more pressing question might be: How many times has a play like that not been called?

Either way, Holl struggled defensively in his own zone in the third period when the Leafs needed a lot more precision across the board. 

Game Score

Game Score is a metric developed by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn to quickly measure a player’s performance in a single game.

Final grade: 🤷

Coming into Game 7, Lightning all-world goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had yet to steal a game. He’d looked downright normal, but if you’re a Leafs fan, the fear that he’d show up was still very real, especially given that he’d posted a shutout in his previous five elimination games.

And while it wasn’t a shutout, it was just about as close as possible, as he stopped 30-of-31 Leafs shots in his finest outing of the series, because, well, of course.

The Leafs deserve credit for how they not only showed up in Game 7, at least compared to last season, and how determined they played throughout the entire series. The Leafs outshot the Lightning 31 to 25 in Game 7. The series itself was close enough that I don’t think the “But they’ll collapse in the first round” comments should follow this core any longer.

“We’re getting sick and tired of feeling like this,” Marner said.

While the Leafs’ third period power play featured a sense of urgency, they were still unable to capitalize on the three power plays they did have, which is one of the few elements of their performance you can really criticize. The Leafs needed to convert on the chances they did have, but again, Vasilevskiy was part of the difference.

And another part of the difference?

The refereeing in this series was far from consistent. There appeared to be missed calls that could have benefitted the Leafs in Game 7. While the referees weren’t the entire difference, it does feel like Leafs fans have every right to feel frustrated by the officiating.

Finally, speaking of fans, I’d like to sincerely thank each and every subscriber who read these report cards throughout the season. I know a lot of times many readers might have disagreed with some of my grades, but it’s that sort of passion that makes the Leafs fanbase unlike any other. I appreciate your interest, game after game.

Where do the Leafs go from here?

Well, that’s about as heavy a question as has been asked in these report cards all season.

You could make a very good argument that given the Leafs’ incredible regular season and how close they came to winning this series that this core deserves to be kept together, as do Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas. It will be a divisive matter among fans, though.

Tweets of the night

There was a certain vibe pre-game:

And the vibe mid-game was focused on one topic in particular:

But then the vibe trended in a different, but still familiar, direction:

(Stats via Natural Stat Trick)

(Photo: Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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