Sheldon Keefe didn’t have the words.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had just lost 3-1 to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup First Round. Inside the locker room, the shock of losing a best-of-7 series they once led 3-1 was tough to process.
“Our guys were devastated after the game,” the Toronto coach said. “So I chose not to speak to the group after.”
In retrospect, what could he have said that hasn’t been said for the past five seasons?
Since 2016-17, the Maple Leafs, with a core of Mitchell Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs each season and failed to win a series. Each time, the season ended with a gloomy locker room with players wondering what happened.
It was the same story Monday.
“I thought as a group we were confident going into games, and I don’t think it had anything to do with our preparation,” Rielly said. “But obviously there have to be answers.”
Right now, Rielly and the Maple Leafs don’t have any. Only questions.
For example, after going up 3-1 in the series with a 4-0 win in Game 4, what happened that they did not hold the lead in any game?
How is it that they are 0-8 in potential series-winning games since last advancing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2004?
And the hottest question among disgruntled Maple Leafs fans: What happened to Matthews and Marner?
Matthews scored once in the series after leading the NHL with 41 goals in the regular season. Marner didn’t score any, extending his postseason goal drought to 18 games.
Marner accepted blame. He said his line with Matthews and Zach Hyman had plenty of chances in each of the seven games. The bottom line: They didn’t finish.
“Especially come playoff time, you want to be the guy to go to and get the team out of the series,” Marner said. “Multiple looks every single game, and it seems like it just wasn’t going in.
“Really no excuse. You want that puck to go into the net.”
It didn’t for Toronto’s top line, unlike in the regular season, when Marner finished fourth in the NHL with 67 points (20 goals, 47 assists) in 55 games and Matthews was fifth with 66 points (41 goals, 25 assists) in 52 games.
“It’s a game of inches,” Matthews said. “We were unable to capitalize. And obviously we’re out there to capitalize.”
On a night of emotions, no one showed more than Jack Campbell. The goalie, fighting tears, blamed himself as he often does, this time for the goal by Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher that opened the scoring at 3:02 of the second period.
It was a shot along the ice that Campbell normally stops. This time, it went between his legs.
“Worst goal of my career came in Game 7,” Campbell said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Of the question marks the Maple Leafs face in the offseason, Campbell isn’t one of them. With goalie Frederik Andersen a pending unrestricted free agent and not expected to be back, Campbell is likely going to be the No. 1 goalie next season.
Hyman, defenseman Zach Bogosian and forwards Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Alex Galchenyuk and Nick Foligno are among the other Maple Leafs who can become unrestricted free agents. Toronto is expected to attempt to re-sign Hyman; the futures of the rest remain cloudy. Whether Thornton and Spezza choose to retire remains to be seen.
The Maple Leafs weren’t looking that far ahead after Game 7 though.
Asked what players were talking about in the locker room, Matthews put things in perspective.
“There wasn’t really much to be said,” he replied.