Babies have been born, raised, and sent off into adulthood in the time since the Toronto Maple Leafs last won a playoff series.
April 20th, 2004.
18 years. 6,595 days.
That’s how long it’s been. And those full-grown humans will still need to wait at least another 48 hours to have their first taste of the bare minimum of NHL success.
It’s a single playoff round, after all. Not the Stanley Cup. Not even the round before the round before the round that then determines the Stanley Cup. It’s a single, solitary series win. Countless teams have done it since the Maple Leafs last managed to. And yet each time this franchise stares down the barrel of do-or-die circumstances, the result never falls in their favor.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying tonight, though.
The Maple Leafs out-played the Lightning through most of an up-and-down Game 6 in Tampa Bay, controlling the possession game to the tune of 51.86 percent of the expected goals while throwing a number of grade-A chances at Andrei Vasilevskiy in overtime that otherwise could have been the difference.
But they weren’t. And here we are.
It was clear which of the two teams at Amelie Arena were the grizzled back-to-back champions. It was the team that routinely weathered the storms thrown at them. The team that knew precisely which calls to sell. The team that, although playing an otherwise sterling game, didn’t watch the two lone glaring errors they committed end up in the back of their net.
The Maple Leafs can point to whichever statistics they want from tonight that would indicate they were the overall better team. And that’s fine. It will assuredly offer some comfort as they prepare for the challenge that awaits them in the days ahead. But the only stat that matters right now is wins and losses. And the Lightning ended up beating them in that category tonight.
The worst part is that it didn’t have to be this way. If Alexander Kerfoot doesn’t drop-pass to no one at his own blueline at four-on-four, or if Ilya Mikheyev doesn’t get his pocket picked during a power play zone entry, perhaps the Maple Leafs squeak out a victory.
The positives from tonight’s performance certainly suggest they could, with John Tavares, the oft-criticized captain, pulling his team back from the brink at the end of the second period with two goals in 16 seconds to give the Leafs their first lead heading into the third.
It wasn’t all bad. There were signs of life. But the result stayed the same.
Toronto’s big guns showed up, even. Auston Matthews scored his fourth of the series to cut the Lightning’s lead in half with a deft tip. Mitch Marner was buzzing all over the ice all night long. William Nylander, despite what your unemployed Uncle might say, even chipped in two assists of his own, creating space for himself better than practically any other Leaf forward in an otherwise extremely tight game, and ending up with a few painstakingly close chances to put the game away himself.
But, as was the case for his entire team, the odds did not fall in his favor. As they never seem to do.
And so, here the Maple Leafs sit, with another Game 7 on the horizon after failing to slam the door on an opponent that gave them a number of chances to do so. The circumstances will be slightly different than in years past. The Leafs will be at home, as they were for last year’s maddening collapse, but this time surrounded by a packed building of 20,000 screaming supporters aching for an ounce of happiness, with the team hoping to ride the most raucous crowd to ever fill Scotiabank Arena for a hockey game to victory as they have previously in this very series.
It won’t be easy. But, really, it was never going to be.
The Maple Leafs take the scenic route in everything they do, drawing out their successes and failures alike in the most painstaking ways imaginable. It’s just how they roll. There’s no fighting it.
“We’ve just got to put our balls on the line and go for it,” said Auston Matthews of Game 7, still reeling from the defeat handed to him minutes earlier.
And he’s exactly right.
This Maple Leafs team seems different — not as content to go out without a fight as previous incarnations were. There’s been a surly focus shared amongst the players this year amid the accolades they’ve racked up while compiling the most successful regular season in franchise history. You can’t argue this team doesn’t want it. They really, really do.
They’ll just have to put their balls on the line and take it this time.
And whether they can actually pull that off remains to be seen.