Why are the Maple Leafs losing another series? The Bruins are just better

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s the playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t show up on time, they briefly went on an offensive outburst, then came the stupid penalties and defensive mistakes and the big non-existent save when it was the no longer necessary. Now they are embarrassed, distraught, and looking over their shoulders at the ghosts.

OK, I admit you’ve heard it from me before, because that’s almost exactly how I began my column after Game 1 of last year’s playoffs, a 7-2 loss to the same fans who booed them off the ice. SATURDAY. So yes, you heard it, from me and everyone else, in one form or another. But I don’t need you to stop me this time because I’m stopping myself. For at least one night, after a humiliating home loss to the Boston Bruins that left them up 3-1 in the series, I’m going to do the opposite of what you might expect. I’m taking a break from all these Maple Leafs stories that we’ve all put down over the last few years.

You know the ones: the Leafs don’t want them enough. The older core is overpaid and entitled. Managers and coaches don’t have the right message, and if they do, no one listens. You need all-star numbers in January, they’ve got you covered, but if you need the kind of change of heart and soul that can tilt a series, look elsewhere. No killer instinct. They don’t show up, they don’t start on time and they don’t want to participate in the big kid hockey that’s played in the playoffs.

Of course. Some of this might be true. Maybe even all of that.

But maybe that doesn’t matter, at least not this time. Maybe the Bruins are just better.

After all, they were better in the regular season, when they lost 26 points in their Presidents’ Trophy-winning 2022-23 campaign, but still finished comfortably ahead of the Leafs. They were also better head to head during the season, winning all four meetings without ever trailing. They were better for almost all of Game 1, long stretches of Game 2, every big moment in Game 3, and almost all of Game 4 on Saturday night.


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There is a pattern here. We’re used to talking about the Leafs as some sort of powerhouse, at least during the regular season, as if their undeniable high-level talent means they have to be an elite team no matter what anyone says. case. But this team barely made the top 10 this year. They were the third best team in the Atlantic, never really in contention for even one round of on-ice advantage.

The playoffs are now here and they are facing a team that finished ahead of them. After four games, the gap is clear, it’s wide and it feels like all that’s left is the inevitable end on Tuesday.

There’s a simple explanation for this, and it has nothing to do with heart, competition, or anything else: The Bruins look better because they are.

They are more experienced. They are better trained. They have much better goalkeepers, by a mile; we all knew that, although you never really know how important it will be in a short series. They have the best blue line; we all suspected it, even though the Leafs’ addition of deadline depth was supposed to make a difference. On paper, the Leafs are much better up front, especially up the middle. But so far, the Bruins are also comfortably outperforming them. They score ugly goals, but they also show skill.

They do all this for one simple reason: they are simply better.

Maybe not. But if the Leafs want to object, they let the suspense build before showing it.

In a sense, none of this should surprise us, and I’m sure people are already rolling their eyes, especially in Boston. My goodness, the team that won a Presidents Trophy last year and went to the Finals in 2019 and has already beaten this Leafs core twice in the playoffs is better than the team that never wins anything? You don’t say, Scotty Bowman, thank you for your insight.

I would say it wasn’t unreasonable to have doubts. The Leafs outscored the Bruins by 36 goals, they had a lot more scoring depth and Auston Matthews is coming off the best scoring season of his era. The blue line would be sufficient and Ilya Samsonov’s second-half resurgence had been a fantastic story. They had even had more playoff success than Boston in recent years.

All of this should count. So far, this is not the case. Why not? Again, the simplest answer is to look ourselves straight in the eye.

What if it was the right one?

The Bruins have been the better team in this series because they are simply better. If you’re a Leafs fan, is this good news or bad news?

In a way, that’s a good thing. If the Bruins are simply better, then at least we won’t have to squash all the old narratives again. Maybe this Leaf team isn’t fundamentally broken inside. It’s not about the mess in their brains. There is not something fundamentally wrong with the entire organization, from top to bottom, as is so often felt. It’s just a good team that continues to meet better ones. They lose because they’re just not as good as the others, just like in the first round in 2022 and 2019 and 2018 and 2017, and probably 2023 too if we’re honest. Even the 2020 team entered this strange bubble qualifier tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the standings. The only series they lost to a team where they were clearly better than the 2021 disaster against Montreal. All the other times? Maybe the better team won, and it wasn’t the Leafs.

This is reassuring to a Leafs fan in a weird way because at least it makes sense, and it means this whole thing isn’t happening because the hockey gods hate us. And best of all, we know the best team doesn’t always win, so there’s even hope.

That’s the optimists’ view, I suppose. The other side of the coin seems darker. This Leafs team has been in the works for eight years. They did everything you’re supposed to do. They committed to rebuilding, then they blatantly failed when it made sense, then they got lucky in the lottery, then they hit home runs on all their top picks, then they lured the famous free agent and made veterans line up. take advantage of discounts in your hometown. They hired the smart young general manager and eventually found the promising coach. They did a great job of finding cheap depth. They’ve spent the last few years trading draft picks for the final pieces of the puzzle. They never panicked. They trusted the process.

What if after all that, they still weren’t good enough? Not because of what’s going on in their heads or in their hearts, but because all the pieces simply don’t add up to a sufficient whole. Leaf fans have been waiting for the light bulb to go off for these guys, and I suppose it’s possible that it might yet. We know they don’t get close to their A-game often enough, especially in the playoffs, and we all talk about it over and over again because we assume it matters. What if that’s just not the case? What if their best game still isn’t enough because their best can’t match what the real contenders could do?

That doesn’t let the organization off the hook for anything else. Yes, it’s possible that the entire strategy behind team construction and cap allocation is fatally flawed. There may be a big difference between a team built for the season and a team built for the playoffs. And it’s almost indisputable at this point that some players just can’t improve their game when it counts. Extending Sheldon Keefe and handing the power play to Guy Boucher now seem like disastrous decisions. And when we said the Leafs couldn’t keep going into every playoff game with the second-best goaltender in the series, maybe we should have clarified that that didn’t mean trying with the third-best instead.

And yes, maybe these brain messes are real after all. Maybe ghosts are too scary. Maybe the hockey gods really do hate us. Maybe we are all cursed.

But for now, it doesn’t even have to be that complicated. Two teams compete in a playoff series and the better team wins.

Not the flashiest team. This isn’t the team with the most eye-popping numbers. This is not the team where all the key players have the biggest contracts possible. Not even necessarily the best collection of individual players. Just the best team. That’s it. That’s the end of the story.

This will also be the end of this Leafs team, and I can’t imagine there is a single Leafs fan left who will have a problem with that. But when the shooting starts, the trade rumors swirl, and it all finally blows up three years after it should have, let’s try not to get carried away by the narratives. They were not cursed, they were not bitten by a snake, and they were not denied the destiny they deserved.

They just weren’t good enough. They never were.

(Photo by Max Domi and John Tavares: Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press via The Associated Press)

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