The Toronto Maple Leafs suffered one of their worst playoff losses in franchise history on Monday when they blew a 4-1 third-period lead in Game 7 of their first-round series against the Boston Bruins and lost in overtime.
When Nazem Kadri put the Leafs up 4-1 with about 15 minutes remaining in regulation, Toronto was very close to becoming the 25th team in NHL history to win a Game 7 after being down 3-1 in the series.
But the young Leafs, many of whom lacked playoff experience prior to this season, were unable to seal the deal and will now start looking at vacation plans instead of preparing for the New York Rangers.
"It was a bit of a heartbreaker how they came back and scored three goals, especially a couple in the last 1:30 or whatever it was," said Kadri after the game.
"At the end of the day, we proved a lot of people wrong and not many people gave us a fair shake in the series, and we pretty much gave Boston all they could handle. They are a good group, they battled back and never gave up for a second, and that’s how they came out with the win."
Bruins head coach Claude Julien praised the Leafs in his postgame press conference.
"You can’t walk away from here without honestly and sincerely giving the other team credit; I said that all along. They had us on the ropes, we’re not going to sit here and lie, they had us on the ropes. They’re a team that believes in themselves. I saw a team with a lot of players getting out of their comfort zone and doing what it took"
"I have no doubt they’ll grow from that. The run that they gave us was unbelievable. At the same time, we talk about the respect of that team, we finished fourth, they finished fifth; they weren’t that far away from us. I think for people who thought it would be lopsided, they were certainly a team that proved that it wasn’t going to be a lopsided series."
"I saw a team grow, I think Randy [Carlyle] will tell you the same thing about his team. As an opposing coach, I saw that team get better and better. We’re glad that we’ve gotten rid of them because they kept getting better."
It's very difficult to look at the positives following a heartbreaking defeat in a Game 7, but there are plenty of reasons for hockey fans in Toronto to be optimistic about the future of the Leafs.
Let's take a look at why the Leafs are winners in 2013 even though the final outcome wasn't what they had hoped for.
James Reimer Proved He's a Legitimate No. 1 NHL Goaltender
There were a lot of question marks surrounding James Reimer going into this series. With so many rumors involving the Leafs and different veteran goaltenders prior to the trade deadline, Reimer needed to prove he was capable of excelling as a starting goalie on a playoff contender in this series to prevent the Leafs from needing to make an upgrade at the position in the offseason.
To his credit, he showed a lot of poise and played well under immense pressure. He won two road games at TD Garden, including a phenomenal performance in a must-win situation in Game 5. He also won Game 6 and then played well enough to give the Leafs a chance to win the series in Game 7. His 43 saves in Game 5 were the most by a Leafs netminder in a playoff matchup (non-overtime) since 1983.
Reimer finished the series with a 2.89 GAA and a .923 save percentage, but to be fair, many of the goals he allowed were not his fault. No team committed more turnovers in the first round than the Leafs, and several of these giveaways resulted in quality scoring chances for the Bruins.
The 25-year-old goalie showed enough in this series to earn the starting job on next year's team, which should allow general manager Dave Nonis to focus on the team's other weaknesses in the trade and free-agent markets, such as the lack of a No. 1 center.
This series would not have lasted more than five games without Reimer's brilliant performances in net.
Jake Gardiner Is a Future NHL Star
The 2013 regular season wasn't a great one for young defenseman Jake Gardiner, who was unable to start the year on the Leafs roster as he worked his way back from a concussion suffered in December while playing for the Toronto Marlies.
He didn't become a fixture on the Leafs roster until mid-March and tallied only four points during the regular season. But as soon as he stepped onto the TD Garden ice in Game 2 for his first playoff appearance, the 22-year-old defenseman showed the impressive poise and offensive skill that helped him impress teammates and fans last season.
Gardiner had five points (one goal, four assists) in six games against the Bruins and also finished second on the team in time on ice per game (23:01), first in takeaways (12) and fourth in blocked shots (13). No one on the Leafs blue line skates better or has more offensive skill than Gardiner, and that was certainly evident throughout this series.
He excelled in a top-four role and played with the composure of a veteran, which was remarkable for a young defenseman making his playoff debut. Gardiner is a future NHL star, and there are many positives he can take from this first-round series against Boston as he improves his game during the summer.
Phil Kessel Trade No Longer a Clear Win for Boston
Before this series, the controversial trade that sent star forward Phil Kessel from Boston to Toronto prior to the 2009-10 season in exchange for three draft picks (which became Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight) was a win for the Bruins.
But after seven hard-fought games between these rivals in which Kessel completely outplayed both Seguin and Hamilton, this trade is no longer a clear win for Boston.
Kessel had never scored an even-strength goal in 20-plus games against his former team prior to this playoff matchup, but after scoring four goals (including two game-winners) with two assists through seven games, the Leafs forward has proven to himself and his teammates that he's capable of having success against the Bruins.
The Leafs will need to make a decision on Kessel's future with the team in the near future since he's eligible for UFA status after next season, but if there were any concerns about his ability to perform at a high level in big games, he's put those fears to bed in 2013.
James van Riemsdyk Gives Leafs Playoff Experience and Production
Former Leafs GM Brian Burke made a fantastic trade after last season when he sent disappointing defenseman Luke Schenn to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for top-six winger James van Riemsdyk.
The former No. 2 overall draft pick came to Toronto with a reputation as a big-game player, and he did nothing to damage that in this series. He finished with the team lead in assists (five), points (seven) and shots (33), while also making a contribution on special teams with 3:10 of power-play time on ice per game.
JVR had a great first season in Toronto (third on team in scoring during regular season with 32 points), and not only did he stay healthy for a full season (played in all 48 games), he gave the team a lot of the scoring depth and toughness in the top-six that it sorely lacked last year.
Van Riemsdyk has yet to reach his full potential, and with a contract that runs through the end of the 2017-18 season and includes a team-friendly $4.25 million salary cap hit, he will be a major part of the Leafs' future success.
With impressive size, strength, offensive skill and the ability to produce in the playoffs, he's going to be a star player for a long time.
The Leafs ended their nine-year playoff drought this season, and many of their best young players made huge strides in their development.
This team was soft, not hard to play against and didn't have much depth last season, but that all changed in 2013. Toronto is now one of the most physical teams in the NHL, and thanks to head coach Randy Carlyle, this club has also made great improvements on defense and penalty killing.
For these reasons, and others, it was a very successful season in Toronto, and with a great core group of talented young players at the NHL level and several good prospects ready to make an impact, it won't be long before the Leafs are back among the Eastern Conference's elite.
"I truly believe that this is going to make every single person in this dressing room a better hockey player in the future," said Carlyle in his postgame press conference following Game 7.
"This is an experience you can’t buy, so we are going to take what we can and go back to work next year."
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.
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