The Toronto Maple Leafs were embarrassed by their latest early exit from the NHL postseason, center Auston Matthews said.
“Having a good regular season isn’t really cutting it anymore,” Matthews said Wednesday, three days after Toronto lost its first postseason series for the fourth straight season. “We have to figure out the playoffs and how to get out of the first round. Four years in a row is obviously pretty frustrating and pretty embarrassing as well with the talent we have on this team that we haven’t been able to pull through.”
The Maple Leafs, the No. 8 seed in their best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers series against the No. 9-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets, were eliminated with a 3-0 loss in Game 5 on Sunday in Toronto, the Eastern Conference hub city, and failed to advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It was the third straight season the Maple Leafs lost a series that had been pushed to the limit. They lost Game 7 to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round in 2018 and 2019, and lost in six games to the Washington Capitals in the first round in 2017.
“We in some ways have taken a step back (in the past two years) but we are determined, in spite of that, to take more steps forward,” president Brendan Shanahan said. “I have complete faith in Kyle [Dubas] as a [general manager] and Sheldon [Keefe] as a coach and complete confidence in what we are going to do here in Toronto.
“I think our potential for growth is even greater than it was a couple of years ago. I’m confident we are going to get it done, you just have to go to work.”
Shanahan said things feel different throughout the organization after this series loss.
“Different than the past couple years where this team has been coming together, I sense that the players are extremely angry with themselves and we (management) are angry with ourselves,” Shanahan said. “The [players] have higher expectations and these guys really want to win, really want to become the team they are capable of becoming. I really believe that about them and they’re not making excuses. We will all look for solutions, but this is not a team that is making excuses right now. The blame lays on us.”
Effort and mental toughness are areas that must be addressed, according to defenseman Jake Muzzin, who was traded to the Maple Leafs from the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 28, 2019. Muzzin won the Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2014.
“This group needs to dig in more,” Muzzin said. “Yeah, we have lots of skill, talent and speed, but when it comes to playoff hockey, the will to win has to burn a little hotter compared to the other stuff. Once we find that, then we’ll be dangerous.”
Muzzin missed the final three games against Columbus after being injured in Game 2. He was taken off the ice on a stretcher, but he skated on Sunday and said Wednesday he will be ready for the start of next season.
As part of the NHL Return to Play Plan, a team is not permitted to disclose player injury or illness information.
Matthews insisted that better days are coming soon for the Maple Leafs, who haven’t won a postseason series since 2004.
“Our confidence level, it’s not feeling high right now, but it should be there,” said the center, who has played all four of his NHL seasons for Toronto, which selected him No. 1 in the 2016 NHL Draft. “The perception of how things are going or how the team is being perceived might be a lot different than what we believe in. The results in the playoffs, we haven’t shown but with the players we have on this team and our core group being together for four years now, we really believe we are right there.
“We believe in our management, staff and players on this team that we are going to power through this adversity and break through eventually.”