Despite an apparent gulf in talent, particularly at the top of their respective rosters, while facing a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 deficit, the Montreal Canadiens pulled off the highly improbable by stunning their nemesis Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7.
Montreal deserves due credit for completing the comeback, entering the series as the clear underdog with both mathematical models and the eye test assessing the North Division-winning Maple Leafs to be a prime Stanley Cup candidate. Laugh it up now, as the core of the Maple Leafs certainly won't get the benefit of the doubt ever again, regular season glory be damned.
This was the most devastating loss of the Auston Matthews era. You can digest the idea of losing consecutive Game 7s to a Bruins powerhouse, but it is far less excusable to drop a series to a team that outside of the first month of the season was playing at a rate that would suggest they were in the bottom quadrant of the NHL.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have to take the brunt of the blame for the Maple Leafs' collapse. For the second consecutive year, Toronto's two name-brand superstars were rendered dormant after a year of eruption on the ice. Marner is more to blame than Matthews, as it could be argued the Rocket Richard winner was subject to some extremely untimely shooting regression. In Marner's case, the flaws are more glaringly obvious.
When things are going right for Marner, and by extension, the Maple Leafs, the 24-year-old has a magical ability to make the game look easy. Marner — who was sound defensively at 5-on-5 and was excellent on the penalty kill through the first five games of the series — was hoisted by his own petard on Monday, making one deke too many and getting picked off by Eric Staal. Brendan Gallagher flew up the ice, being chased valiantly by Matthews, but he got his shot off just in time to beat Jack Campbell.
Toronto created just one high-danger chance in Game 7, according to Natural Stat Trick. And for neutralizing both Marner, who is primarily responsible for creating chances and finished fourth in NHL scoring, and Matthews, the winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy, Montreal's defensively-inclined forwards deserve a ton of credit.
Gallagher and Staal made the most of their opportunity on the counterattack on Monday, the result of sound defensive awareness. Phillip Danault, who was gaining down-ballot consideration for the Selke Trophy, wore Matthews like a blanket throughout the series and rendered him goalless after Game 2. Danault, Jake Evans and Gallagher didn't do much offensively against the Zach Hyman-Matthews-Marner line but they made their lives hell on the other side.
At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, actual goals are always better than expected goals — who wants to look at graphs during a hockey conversation?
Montreal's young core not only showed up, but often outplayed Toronto's decorated stars. Although he inexplicably spent the first two games in the press box, Cole Caufield showed why he could be the darling of the 2019 draft, with his Game 5 interception in overtime leading to a Nick Suzuki goal. Suzuki is becoming a star in his own right and outscored Marner, too.
Toronto posted superior Corsi for and unblocked shot attempts numbers in five of the seven games. There is little mathematical reason to take comfort in. The Canadiens did a better job of seizing the moment. But relying on the unquantifiable sets a dangerous precedent when everyone's looking for a seismic change after five consecutive first-round exits.
Let's eliminate the unquantifiable notion of lack of effort. Marner wasn't abysmal offensively for a lack of effort and it would run counterintuitive to the carefully cultivated image he's built, from GTHL standout with the Vaughan Kings and Don Mills Flyers, to homegrown Maple Leafs superstar. In signing the hockey world's most talked about contract, Marner did assume the responsibilities of becoming one of the faces of the franchise, and coming off a season where he finished fourth in NHL scoring with 67 points, it's more than reasonable to expect him to contribute more than strong closeouts and an active stick on the penalty kill.
"I just have to make sure that it stops happening," a dejected Marner told reporters after the game.
As for Matthews, it's not for a lack of chances. In this regard, he's less culpable than Marner as he generated 25 shot attempts — the third-best figure in the playoffs to date — and missed two marquee chances in Game 6 and 7, flinging the puck just over the top of the net in Montreal, then hitting the post at Scotiabank Arena on Monday. It's an inopportune time for Matthews to get cold, but a lot of that has to be credited to Danault and his linemates watching No. 34 like a hawk.
But whether you want to chalk it up to Matthews' shooting regression, or a complete inability to create, Toronto's two superstars should wear the blame for Game 7. This is what comes with the territory.
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