KOSHAN: Leafs’ valiant third-period effort not enough, fall in Game 7 to Lightning

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There’s no shame in losing to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion.

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For the Maple Leafs, however, the pain that hit hard late Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena will linger for a long time.

The Leafs didn’t take one shift for granted and left everything on the ice, as the saying goes, but it was not enough to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 in a 2-1 loss.

In the end, the experiences gained by the Lightning in winning back-to-back Cups was greater than the first-round losses the Leafs have endured in the past five years. It’s six years in a row now that the Leafs have not advanced to the second round.

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While Tampa needed goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to make large saves at times, the Lightning didn’t flinch after going down 3-2 in the series, winning the final two games.

The Leafs had 17 shots on Vasilevskiy in the third period and didn’t score on any of them. That won’t go away for a while, either.

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“It’s a game of inches,” Auston Matthews said. “It’s really frustrating, really disappointing. Every guy in there competed and gave it their all. Ultimately, they made one more play than us.

“It’s the back-to-back Cup champions and it’s a team that has been through a lot. They’ve been through a lot of heartbreak, and they have climbed their way to the top two years in a row. We’re right there.”

This was Tampa coach Jon Cooper in the morning: “We’re not surprised how good they are. They have been knocking at the door for so long. I think they have grown as a group, I think their stars are stars. They have a really good team game and the coach does a hell of a job preparing them. The Leafs have a hell of a team.” … We don’t imagine that sentiment would have changed much after the game, and Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe had this observation: “We got a lot of respect in that (handshake) line from their team, which was nice to see. It was a much different tone of respect on the other side from what we have experienced previously. We’re earning respect in the league, but we’re not in the respect game. We’re in the winning game and we have to find a way to do that.” … Already giving Leafs Nation nightmares, Nick Paul nearly made it worse when he crashed into Jack Campbell four minutes into the third. Campbell got up favouring his left leg, but after some anxious moments, remained in the game … The Leafs had six shots on goal as Ondrej Palat served a hooking minor, which came at 6:19 of the third, but the No. 1 power play in the regular season could not get the puck past Vasilevskiy … John Tavares scored one of his prettier goals in recent memory at 8:32 of the second when he circled around the net, and a jumble of players, to snap the puck past Vasilevskiy. However, rather than the game being tied 1-1, the goal was not allowed as Justin Holl was called for interference on Anthony Cirelli. As hard as the sequence might have been for the Leafs to swallow, the call on Holl couldn’t be avoided. He threw a pick on Cirelli, and if not for that, Tavares might not have escaped the check of Cirelli. “I haven’t really seen it,” Tavares said. “I saw it quickly on the bench. It’s hard for me to comment. (Holl) told me he is just trying to take his own space. One of those that can probably go either way.” … The Leafs not only killed the penalty off, they didn’t let it impact their desire. At 13:25, Morgan Rielly took a pass from Matthews and ripped a shot past Vasilevskiy to get the tie the Leafs thought they had five minutes earlier … Paul scored his second of the game at 16:32 of the second when he managed to get the better of TJ Brodie on a one-on-one and beat Campbell to the far side. “This is where heroes are made,” veteran Corey Perry said of Game 7s in general. “It might not be the big guy. It might be somebody that you’ve never heard of doing something that takes us to the next level.” We’ve heard of Paul, of course, but as Perry said, it was not the big guy doing it for Tampa … Unlike last year, when the Leafs lost Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens, and in the 2020 bubble when the Leafs lost a deciding Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, there was no trepidation on the part of Toronto to start the game … The Leafs were on point from the opening faceoff, taking charge on the first several shifts. Pierre Engvall and Marner had early chances … Brayden Point was in clear pain as he hobbled directly to the dressing room at 17:11 of the first after he fell awkwardly into the side boards. Point was favouring his right leg, and though it did not look good for the Tampa forward, he returned for the second period. Point was on the ice for one shift and slammed his stick on the ice in frustration as he made his way back to the bench. He did not play again, but stayed on the bench for the remainder of the game … The Lightning got on the board at 18:24 of the first period when Paul scored on a Ross Colton rebound.

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