It’s almost tiring to just put yourself in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ skates. Could you find the energy to have the same conversation before the start of training camp, six years in a row? Field questions on what you learned about your first-round exit? Find the silver lining?
At the NHL Player Media Tour in Vegas last week, superstar center Auston Matthews and No. 1 defenseman Morgan Rielly mustered enough moxie to roll out of bed and do the dance with reporters. To their credit, they gave no exasperated sighs or sharp looks. They expressed about as much perspective as possible given they’d endured the same Round-1 heartbreak for six consecutive seasons.
The glass half-full guy? That’s Matthews, fresh off back to back Rocket Richard Trophies and having delivered the first 60-goal season of any player in a decade. He feels last spring’s seven-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, in which Toronto held a 3-2 series lead and even a third-period lead in Game 6, was different than the previous five post-season defeats.
Matthews likes to play amateur hockey historian and compare the Leafs to franchises that went through similar tribulations before triumphing. A year ago, in this same setting, he pointed out how long it took Steve Yzerman and the Detroit Red Wings to break through in the 1990s and for the Washington Capitals of the Alex Ovechkin era to do so. Matthews sees even more recent examples of teams who took a while to win championships.
“It’s disappointing getting the same result over and over again, but I look at a team like Tampa or a team like Colorado, and it took them a really long time to win,” Matthews said. “They had to go through a lot. I think every team’s journey is different, so we’re writing our own story. We’re extremely motivated and all working toward the same goal.”
Do the parallels work? Only to an extent. The Lightning of the Jon Cooper era took a long time to lift the Cup, but they reached the Final in 2014-15 and lost in the 2015-16 and 2017-18 Eastern Conference Final to boot. The Avs? A closer comparison. Before they hoisted the chalice last season, they had yet to advance past the second round in the first eight seasons of the Nathan MacKinnon era. They had three total series wins to show for it.
Winding the clock further back, the 2018 Capitals had never even reached the Eastern Conference Final over Ovechkin’s first 13 seasons, but they at least won six playoff series over that span.