Despite loss, Leafs headed in right direction

Joffrey Lupul, right, and the Maple Leafs were right there with Boston in their first-round series. Steve Russell/Getty Images

BOSTON -- On the day of Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Boston Bruins, Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri told the media that this was a “very very winnable series” for him and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not many people believed Kadri then, and they definitely didn’t believe Kadri after the Leafs suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Bruins in Game 4 to fall behind 3-1 in the series.

But Kadri and the Leafs clawed their way back into the series by winning Games 5 and 6, and then held a 4-1 lead with just more than 10 minutes left in regulation of Game 7. It appeared Kadri’s words would prove prophetic.

Then the bottom fell out, and the Leafs watched their three-goal lead and chance to pull off an upset slip away as the Bruins scored three unanswered goals, the third from Patrice Bergeron with 51 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. Bergeron then completed the comeback with his second goal of the game, 6:05 into overtime, to give the Bruins an improbable 5-4 comeback win and crush an overachieving Leafs team that had shown they could compete in what for many of them was their first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“Disappointed,” said Leafs defenseman Cody Franson when asked to describe his feelings after the game. “We gave ourselves a very good chance to win this series, and we gave it away. It’s that simple. We gave it to them.

"Like I said, credit to them. They executed when it counted. You give them credit for that, but it was our mistakes that allowed them to generate those chances.”

Toronto goalie James Reimer -- who made 30 saves in Game 7 and was a lot better than many expected in the series -- was clearly still in shock and dejected when he addressed the media.

“There’s no way to describe it, I don’t think. Just an empty feeling, really,” Reimer said. “It’s over, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You know, when you go through the season and a goal goes in or somebody scores in the shootout or whatever deciding goal that it is -- it sucks, but you’ll get them next time. But a case like tonight there is no next time, it’s just next year. So you know, it’s really just an empty feeling.”

But while it was, as expected, a somber atmosphere in the Leafs’ dressing room, even after this crushing defeat, some players couldn’t deny what this team had accomplished making the playoffs and then coming this close to coming back from a 3-1 series deficit and advancing to the second round.

“Any type of playoff experience is going to help you,” Franson said. “Unfortunately, this is the experience we’re going to carry with us for the rest of the summer, but we had a lot of guys come in and play hard minutes for us. We gave ourselves a good chance to win that series. We just made mistakes at the very end of it.”

Coach Randy Carlyle was critical of his team, but he wasn’t going to deny the progress it has made in a shortened season and since he arrived in March of the 2011-12 season.

“I think what we did is we proved that we can compete -- and this is a sharp learning curve for some of our younger players -- that this is what it’s going to take,” Carlyle said. “We did a lot of good things, but we still didn’t find a way to close it out. So that’s the difference.

"One goal, one bounce, one body check, one blocked shot could’ve made the difference for a win or a loss in the series, and we laid it out on the line and we played hard. And the most disappointing part for me is we lost two games in our building, and that when you’re in the playoffs very rarely can you afford to lose two in your building of a seven-game series. It makes the mountain that much more difficult to climb.”

As Kadri pointed out, there were plenty of silver linings to take from this experience. The problem was that while they know that, it was hard to really embrace it after such a crushing loss. Kadri and the Leafs know they could’ve won this series, and that is why they were even more frustrated. But the budding star who scored his first career playoff goal in Game 7 was doing his best to stay positive and look to the future.

“I truly believe that this is going to make every single person in this dressing room a better hockey player in the future,” Kadri said. “This is an experience you can’t buy, so we are going to take what we can and go back to work next year. I don’t really think you can look at it as a negative thing. We put everything out on the line and it was a grueling series, seven games, and you can’t really ask for much more.

"At the end, they got the job done and we didn’t. There are a lot of things that we can correct, but there’s no use in going back and pointing fingers now. It’s all about how we regroup next year. I know everyone is a little disappointed with how things ended. But at the same time, there is a silver lining with that experience and being able to take that forward.”