The opponent was different, the format unique, but the result was the same for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They once again failed to win a round in the NHL postseason, losing the series-deciding game for the third straight year.
Toronto’s season ended in a 3-0 loss against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 5 of the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the Eastern Conference hub city, on Sunday. The Maple Leafs also lost in Game 7 of the first round against the Boston Bruins in 2018 and 2019.
They haven’t won a playoff series since 2004.
“It’s hard to put it all into words,” Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly said. “It might take some time to digest a little bit, but it’s definitely a bad feeling, a bad taste. Comparing it to the loss in Boston [last season], this one is different for sure for obvious reasons. Whether that makes it worse or easier to deal with I don’t know, but right now it certainly feels like it’s harder to live with.”
The Maple Leafs have been outscored a combined 15-5 between the two Game 7 losses against Boston in the previous two seasons and the Game 5 loss against Columbus.
When asked if there was a common thread or theme in those three losses, Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews admitted he didn’t have an answer.
Regardless, the one undeniable emotion running through the team now is disappointment.
“It’s a game of inches out there,” Matthews said. “We had some chances, the puck didn’t go in the net. It’s a tough pill to swallow. It’s very disappointing.”
It’s even tougher because the Maple Leafs earned the chance to reach the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by pulling off a sensational comeback in Game 4 on Friday. They rallied from 3-0 down by scoring three goals in the final 3:57 of regulation before Matthews won it at 13:10 of overtime.
But for the second time in the series, they couldn’t put a shot past Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo, who made 33 saves in Game 5 a week after he made 28 in a 2-0 win in Game 1.
Korpisalo particularly robbed center John Tavares on a few point-blank chances. Tavares also had one of his eight shot attempts hit the bottom of the right post, a misfire that he won’t soon forget because he had almost the entire net available.
“It’s less than an inch probably and it’s in,” Tavares said. “Gotta find a way to put that in. Had some good looks, the goalie played well, but you’ve got to find a way to get through and get the results.”
The Maple Leafs struggled all series in that department.
They scored 10 goals on 189 shots in the series for a shooting percentage of 5.3 percent. They scored three goals on 155 shots at 5-on-5 for a shooting percentage of 1.9 percent.
Toronto shot 10.3 percent in all situations, including 8.6 percent at 5-on-5 in 69 regular-season games.
“The difference in Games 1 and 5 are three what I would call somewhat lucky goals,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “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 in the two shutouts that we had. A little more luck and it might have been a different result.
“We end up shooting about two percent at 5-on-5. For a team like ours to score on two percent of its chances, everybody coming into the series would say it’s pretty unlikely. That’s the way it went.”