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Hockey Drought In Canada

In The Beginning

The year is 2004 and I am fresh out of high school in Windsor, Ontario. At this point, life is good for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans, as well as all of Canada’s hockey fanbase. The Leafs entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the four seed in the Eastern Conference with 103 points.

Toronto would battle to a round one series victory as they dispatched the fifth-seeded Ottawa Senators in a brutal seven-game series. The momentum would then come to a halt as they fell to the three-seed Philadelphia Flyers in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.

This trip to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was their third in six years, with two additional trips to the Conference Finals where they were defeated by the Buffalo Sabres in 1999 and the Carolina Hurricanes in 2002.

Surely with these consistent appearances in the playoffs, a Stanley Cup would be just around the corner, a first for a Canadian team since the Montreal Canadiens in 1992.

Fast forward to the year 2023. I am now 39. I’ve graduated college, been married, and divorced, had a son and switched careers.

It’s been 19 years since I graduated high school and in the 19 years since, the Toronto Maple Leafs have failed to win a playoff series.

The Drought

After defeating the Senators in the first round of the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs, The Leafs would go on to miss the playoffs in the next seven seasons.

They would make a single playoff appearance in 2013 where they would take a 3-1 lead on the division rival Boston Bruins. The Bruins would go on a three-game winning streak and force a game seven where Toronto would take a 3-1 into the third period, they would then totally self-destruct allowing three goals in the third period before losing in overtime.

After this humiliating playoff meltdown, the often-talented Toronto Maple Leaf’s roster would go on to miss the playoffs in the following three seasons.

Return to Greatness… Sort of

The Maple Leafs would begin to assemble a team that would dominate year in and year out during the regular season and found their way back to the playoffs in 2017, where they would lose to Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in six games in round one.

2018 and 2019 would roll around and Toronto would begin to situate themselves among the elite teams in the league. In both seasons they won more than 45 games but, in both seasons, they again proved to be first-round playoff fodder, falling to the Bruins in seven games to end the 2018 season and falling to Boston once again in seven games ending the 2019 campaign.

In 2020 the NHL was in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and the new playoff format would see Toronto facing off as a heavy favourite against the underdog Columbus Blue Jackets in a best-of-five series.

Once again, the series would go the distance and the team would find a way to choke in the deciding game, bringing the total to four consecutive first-round losses.

The pandemic would continue to wreak havoc on the NHL in the 2021 season but would see Toronto prosper as they entered the playoffs the number one seed and would face off against a far inferior Montreal Canadiens squad.

Despite finishing the season with 18 points more than Montreal, Toronto would once again find a way to lose in the first round as they were defeated in another seven-game series.

The 2022 season would see Toronto win a franchise-record 54 games. Leaf fans would enter the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs whipped into a frenzy as they assumed this had to be their year, but as we’ve learned in the past never trust Toronto.

They would go on to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, once again doing so in a heartbreaking seven-game series.

The Dawn Before…

By the time the 2023 NHL season rolled around, Toronto fans had finally lost all hope and had resigned themselves to the fact that their team simply could not win the big game.

As the season progressed the team looked to be turning over a new leaf with the help of newly acquired veteran forward Ryan O’Reilly. Toronto would go on to win 50 games once again and find themselves starring down the barrel of the Tampa Bay Lightning in round one.

Many of the Toronto fans that I know kept their hopes in check. None of them wanted to buy back in, and while they sat down to watch every game they did so with a feeling of impending doom.

This feeling was multiple when they came out of the gate in game one at home and was annihilated by Tampa Bay to 7-3.

After the 7-3 beat down in which the team looked disinterested in the game many fans checked out and assumed it would be the status quo for the Leafs in the playoffs once again.

Though, Toronto showed signs of life in game two and decided they weren’t going to roll over and die as they roared back to life with a 7-2 win of their own. The boys in blue would then go on to win back-to-back overtime games on their way to a 3-1 series lead.

Game five would see the Lightning win 4-2 and the impending doom feeling had returned in full force for Toronto fans who naturally assumed they would blow another 3-1 series lead in the first round.

This proved not to be the case as Toronto pulled out a 3-2 overtime win in game six to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

They did it! The round one drought had ended and most of Canada rejoiced, especially Dean in Windsor, Ontario.

The Dark

Ontario had entered a fever pitch as Toronto fans nationwide were now fully back on board. Toronto had not only won a playoff series, but they had vanquished archrival Tampa Bay in the process. Add in an early departure for the hated Boston Bruins and Toronto fans started to play the parade and talks of “This is our year” could be heard in lunchrooms all over the country.

Game one against the surprising Florida Panthers came and went and for most of us, the total lack of effort by Toronto would come as little surprise. Many fans would go on to blame the referees, a recurring theme throughout the years of failure but in the end, most hockey minds realized that Toronto’s head coach was simply being heavily outcoached by former Maple Leafs bench boss Paul Maurice, turns out they should have kept him.

This was no surprise to hockey experts as Keefe had been outcoached by Jon Cooper in round one consistently and the team won despite him.

Toronto once again showed very little jump and enthusiasm in game two, highlighted by star forward William Nylander looking like he was asleep for much of the game. Toronto would lose 3-2 and go down 2-0 in the series after dropping both games at home to a far inferior team.

The Panthers would take game three in overtime and fans would once again blame the referees, more specifically Wes McCauley as they conjured up a former issue between him, Sheldon Keefe and McCauley’s brother-in-law David Frost.

In the end, any fan who was honest with themselves knew that it wasn’t the referees who had Toronto in a 3-0 series hole, and they just didn’t deserve to win. To make matters worse, Luke Schenn collided with starting goaltender Ilya Samsonov late in game three.

It was announced he would miss the remainder of the series, forcing backup Joseph Woll into action after seeing limited playing time throughout the regular season.

For a more in-depth breakdown of the series, check out my colleague’s article below.

Maple Leafs On Brink Of Stunning Elimination From 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Help us, Joseph Woll, You’re Our Only Hope

With Woll thrust into action in game four, Toronto showed signs of life for the first time all series. They played to a scoreless first period before jumping out to a 1-0 lead to start the second period on a William Nylander goal, Mitch Marner would add another tally midway through the third period and that would prove to be enough as they held on for a 2-1 lead and staved off elimination.

Game four ended with a melee that saw a half dozen players receive misconduct penalties for their actions. The most noticeable portion of this game-ending melee is that while his teammates engaged and battled hard, Mitch Marner once again allowed himself to be pushed around and continued to prove how soft he is.

The teams returned to Toronto for game five and despite the teams playing nearly even in the hits and shots column. Despite this near-even start Toronto found themselves down 2-0 early in the second period due to a power-play goal and an odd-man rush seemingly caused by a bouncing puck in the neutral zone.

This was made all the more frustrating by the missed opportunities they had on two mid-first-period power plays.

It was easy to see by the midway point of the second period that the home crowd had been neutralized by the early goals and the Maple Leafs were in for an uphill battle.

Several critical saves by Panther’s goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in the second period helped to preserve the 2-0 lead and keep Toronto off the scoreboard until the halfway point of the second period when the third line broke the shutout with some hard work and a deflection to bring the score to 2-1, bringing the crowd right back into the game and igniting a series of physical play by Toronto on the subsequent shifts.

Morgan Rielly appeared to tie up the game late in the second period but the goal was waived off upon video review, despite the fact that it had clearly crossed the line and Toronto was left with a one-goal deficit to make up heading into what would prove to be the final period of their season.

William Nylander would drive hard to the net late in the third period would tie the game with a well-placed wrist shot that would set up for a nailbiting end to game five.

Toronto tried their best to give the game away with some late-game sloppy defensive play but ultimately game five was to be decided in sudden death overtime.

Austin Matthews was robbed early on in overtime and that proved to be the closest the Leafs would get to extend the series, despite dominating the overtime session an odd man rush would see Nick Cousins send Toronto home for the summer. Check out the game-winner below.

Despite having the last line change at home, Sheldon Keefe once again struggled to take advantage and get beneficial matchups for his top line, despite a roster full of talent, they once again failed to step up to the challenge once the competition stepped up its game.

Better Luck Next Year

So, the season has come and gone, and once again it ends with the Leafs building up the hopes of their fanbase only to crush them in the most brutal of ways. This team consistently racks up points in the regular season when the game resembles that of figure skating with sticks, but a team comprised mostly of soft players continues to rely only on their talent and is being outworked by hungrier teams on a nightly basis.

The outcome of this playoff run should lie solely at the feet of Sheldon Keefe, he is 100% incapable of outmaneuvering opposing coaches and frequently mismatches his lines.

Two rounds into a playoff series and he still seemed to be unsure which players to play when the game was on the line.

If Toronto wants to win another round-one series and eventually a playoff series, they need to eliminate the dead weight in this lineup and replace them with hard-nosed, playoff-type players.

Gregory Campbell may not have been the most talented player in the league but, he won a Stanley Cup with the Bruins because he was willing to break his leg blocking a shot and then keep playing until the penalty was killed, that’s the kind of player you need to win a cup, not floaters like William Nylander who just cherry pick to pad their offensive stats.

A new coach wouldn’t kill them either, otherwise, it may be another 50 years before Dean and the Toronto Maple Leafs fans of Windsor get another chance at a Stanley Cup banner, although I’m sure they will plan the parade every year anyways.

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