When Nazem Kadri put Phil Kessel's rebound past Tuukka Rask five minutes and 29 seconds into the third period, the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans were ready to head on to the second round.
What they were not ready for was the next 28:24. During that span, their lead—and second-round playoff hopes—vanished, leaving fans, players and the media wondering: What went wrong for the Maple Leafs in the 2013 NHL playoffs?
Making the playoffs in 2013 was a big deal for the Maple Leafs and their fans. The last time they made the playoffs in 2004, Shrek 2 was dominating the box office, rock guitarist Eric Clapton received a CBE order from Queen Elizabeth II and the NHL still had the two-line pass.
A lot has changed since 2004, but in the end, the result was the same. In both instances, the Leafs failed to get the job done in the playoffs by winning the Stanley Cup. No one expected a Cup this year, but after coming so close to advancing to the second round, it is only natural to have a few questions about the Leafs' fall from grace.
How did a team that rallied back in valiant fashion from a 3-1 series hole blow a three-goal lead in their most important game of the season? What changed in the last 14:55 of regulation? Why did the Leafs take their foot of the gas?
Some time has passed since that fateful Game 7, and it is evident that three key factors led to the Maple Leafs' demise in Game 7 of the 2013 NHL playoffs.
1. The Maple Leafs Are A Young Team That Didn't Know How to Finish
The most important players on the Maple Leafs roster are all under the age of 30. While Randy Carlyle is an experienced coach who won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks, it comes down to execution on the ice.
Phil Kessel is 25, James van Riemsdyk is 24, Jake Gardiner is 22 and many of the Leafs' other important players are still very young. While this is great for the future of the Maple Leafs, it didn't help them this year, because they didn't have veterans who knew how to close out a game.
It didn't help that the Leafs were playing the Bruins, who simply had more experience. Of all the players on the Leafs roster, only five had played in a Game 7. That was a mismatch to a Bruins roster that had players with a ton of Game 7 experience on the roster.
Inexperience also led to the Leafs making some mistakes with the puck, which the Bruins were able to capitalize. The Leafs' transition into the zone before the Nathan Horton goal ultimately allowed the Bruins to get momentum going.
With two Maple Leafs in front of the net screening Reimer and another Maple Leaf pushing a Bruin toward the Toronto netminder, Nathan Horton had all the help he needed to put the puck into the net for the Bruins' first third-period goal.
It has been often said that a team needs to learn how to lose before they can win. How many documentaries have featured clips of the 1980's Edmonton Oilers talking about how they learned from losing to the New York Islanders?
This cliche is one of hockey's most repeated, but there is merit to it.
The Leafs roster gained valuable experience this year that will help the team grow next season. Having Game 7 experience is always important, and this loss is something that the Leafs will never forget.
The Leafs will have the benefit of being a young team with experience, but a lack of experience did them in against the Bruins during Game 7.
2. The Leafs Sat Back After Scoring their 4th Goal
In the regular season, a three-goal lead in the third period often guarantees a victory. In the playoffs, no lead is ever safe, and this point ties in with point No. 1. By giving up a three-goal lead with 11 minutes remaining, the Leafs did something that hadn't happened to an NHL team in 12 years, according to Nick Cotsonika.
Last time a team won when trailing by three with 11 min. or less left in reg. was 2001, when Kings came back and beat Wings, 4-3, in OT.— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) May 14, 2013
As a young team, the Leafs thought they were safe with a three-goal lead, so they sat back for the rest of the third period.
The Leafs took six shots in the third period and scored on two of them. Once taking a three-goal lead, the Leafs sat back and stopped shooting the puck. Instead of keeping their foot on the gas, the Leafs attempted to run down the clock.
From 14:31 to 3:29, the Leafs put zero shots on goal, and the lack of offensive-zone pressure cost them the game. Just stop and read that again. For 11:02 during the third period of a pivotal Game 7, the Leafs registered zero shots on goal.
By continually dumping the puck and not sustaining pressure, the Bruins were given multiple chances to carry the puck up the ice. The Bruins had all the time they needed to pull off the comeback, and the Leafs could have prevented this by taking shots and generating some form of offensive-zone pressure.
The Bruins took advantage, like a veteran team should have, of the situation by pestering James Reimer with 17 shots on goal, and they scored on three of them. Once the game was tied, the Bruins kept surging and outshot the Leafs 5-2.
Although Reimer was exceptional during the series, he could only weather the Bruins' storm of pucks for so long. The important lesson to take away from this game is that no lead is ever safe, and the only way to ensure victory is to play until the final buzzer.
3. Mismatch in Size Allowed Bruins to Get Back in the Game
If you watch the footage of Milan Lucic's and Patrice Bergeron's third-period goals, you will notice something similar. What you will see is the mismatch in the size of the bodies in front of James Reimer, and a lapse in protecting the crease.
No one on the ice for the Maple Leafs was able to move Lucic from in front of Reimer, and he was able to capitalize on a rebound. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, if Lucic didn't score, the Leafs were all but guaranteed to win the game.
A statistician from Elias Sports Bureau calculated #Leafs chances of winning seconds before Lucic scored at 99.9%. Now that's a tough loss.— NHLexpertpicks.com (@NHLexpertpicks) May 15, 2013
On Bergeron's goal, Zdeno Chara was planted in front of the net, and there was no way that Reimer could track the puck with a 6'9", 256-pound behemoth in his path.
While moving these players from in front of the net is easier said than done, failing to clear the front of the net is a cardinal sin in hockey. The referees had swallowed the whistle for the third period, so the Leafs could have practically done anything to clear the crease and they probably would have gotten away with it.
While no one should ever openly advocate for a team to use nefarious methods to ensure a victory, in Game 7, a team should do whatever is necessary to seal the deal.
Ultimately, the Leafs' season ended with another dagger by Patrice Bergeron 6:05 into overtime. It was a loss that left fans angry, sad and confused, and it was a loss that left Maple Leaf winger Joffrey Lupul devastated.
That hockey game will haunt me until the day I die...— Joffrey Lupul (@JLupul) May 14, 2013
The 2012-13 Leafs accomplished a lot, and they showed that they should be back with a vengeance in 2013-14.
It is obvious what the Leafs did wrong, and they won't repeat it twice. For the first time in years, there isn't a question about goaltending because James Reimer proved himself in the playoffs.
You can't fault "Optimus Reim" for the Game 7 collapse, but fans should credit him for his amazing play in Games 5 and 6. He is the goalie of the Leafs for the future, and he has what it takes to lead them to playoff glory.
Will the Leafs be a playoff team in 2014?
The Leafs have a great roster full of young talent, and they will have a chance to polish the roster off during free agency. With a few tweaks and upgrades, the Leafs will be ready to contend in their new conference next season, and they should be a sleeper pick to do damage during the 2013-14 season.