Maple Leafs left searching for answers after another opening-round playoff exit

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A couple of days to digest their first-round playoff collapse did little to help the Toronto Maple Leafs find answers on where things went wrong after a strong regular season.

Toronto built a 3-1 series lead on Montreal before dropping three straight games to the Canadiens. Montreal won Games 5 and 6 in overtime and eliminated the Maple Leafs with a 3-1 win on Monday night at Scotiabank Arena.

"We didn't close," said forward Wayne Simmonds. "I think good teams, when they smell blood, they finish (opponents) off right away."

Many players who appeared on Wednesday's season-ending media availability mentioned not "starting on time" in some playoff games, a reference to a lack of urgency from puck drop. The Maple Leafs did well to force OT in both games before the decider, but had difficulty playing at a consistent pace for a full 60 minutes.

It was the fifth straight year that the Maple Leafs failed to make it out of the opening round. Playoff expectations were higher this time around after Toronto finished first in the North Division standings.

"This one hurts the most," said forward Zach Hyman. "It's the most heartbreaking out of all of them. There are no excuses, there's nothing you can point to. It's just we didn't get the job done."

General manager Kyle Dubas, head coach Sheldon Keefe and team president Brendan Shanahan were scheduled to hold media availabilities later Wednesday.

The Maple Leafs haven't won a playoff series since 2004. Toronto's last Stanley Cup came in 1967.

Star forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner excelled in the regular season but were rather muted in the playoffs. Toronto's power play was largely ineffective and the Canadiens capitalized on the Leafs' mistakes.

"No one is feeling good about this, it's awful," Marner said. "We all wanted a better result. Obviously what we didn't accomplish is a really (crappy) feeling."

Injuries to captain John Tavares and defenceman Jake Muzzin didn't help matters, but Toronto's lack of killer instinct late in the series proved costly. The Maple Leafs simply didn't have the necessary jump when they needed it in Game 7.

"The teams that go the farthest play the hardest and they grind teams down," said Muzzin. "We have to learn from this and take it going forward that we need to do that more. We can't be easy to play against or it won't get done in the playoffs."

A team that often wowed with its firepower in the regular season seemed afraid to take chances in the post-season. Rather than put the Canadiens away, the Maple Leafs seemed almost intimidated by the moment.

Meanwhile, Montreal netminder Carey Price showed how it was done. With a steady, confident, been-there-before demeanour, he displayed the big-game focus he's known for and his teammates fed off it.

The Canadiens got results and the Maple Leafs were left wondering what happened.

"I think that there's belief in the group and I think that there's good things that happened over the course of the season that we have to build on, carry over and keep," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "And then ultimately when it comes to playoffs, I think that we do have to learn some hard lessons. I think that happens over time by losing.

"I think it hurts and you learn and you move forward. As a group we have to be able to do that."

Toronto has several players who will become unrestricted free agents this summer, most notably Hyman and goaltender Frederik Andersen.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2021.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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