Morgan Rielly and the Toronto Maple Leafs could have had their best team in franchise history in 2022-23, but after winning a round for the first time in two decades, it all came crushing down after a Game 5 loss on home ice to the Florida Panthers on Friday night.
After beating the back-to-back-to-back Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the Leafs were widely favored to beat the Panthers, but after falling into a 3-0 series hole, it seemed only a matter of time before this team was back to postseason elimination.
Nick Cousins scored the overtime winner to give Florida a 3-2 victory in the game, a 4-1 win in the series and a date with the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, their first appearance since 1996.
For the longest-tenured Leaf, it’s heartbreaking.
“We were proud of our regular season and the things we were able to do during the course of it,” Morgan Rielly told reporters after the Leafs loss, per NHL.com. “I love these guys.”
The 29-year-old then paused for several seconds, and got misty as he tried to understand what went wrong in 2023.
“I don’t want anything to change.”
Toronto’s best player in the playoffs will now have to deal with the fact that major changes could be coming, both to the roster and to the front office.
Auston Matthews and William Nylander are heading into the final year of their contracts. General manager Kyle Dubas does not have a contract for next season. The team has 10 unrestricted free agents this offseason, including trade deadline pieces in Luke Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly.
Perhaps the most glaring stat is the fact that Matthews, the team’s highest paid player, didn’t score a single goal in the series.
“It’s tough,” he said, per NHL.com. “This is the tightest group I’ve played with in my seven years. Some really great teammates. Some really great people. It stings, obviously, to go out like that and not get an opportunity to get another crack at it with all these guys. We couldn’t get the job done.”
The Leafs, as currently constructed, almost certainly won’t get another chance.
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