TRAIKOS: Maple Leafs’ Campbell is not to blame for Game 7 loss to Lightning

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There was a time this year when Jack Campbell completely lost his confidence. Where he couldn’t make routine saves. Couldn’t stop a beach ball if he tried.

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It happened in early March, right around the time when he missed a couple of weeks with a mysterious rib injury that kept taking longer and longer to heal. And for a while there, you didn’t quite know if the Toronto Maple Leafs goalie wasn’t playing because he was hurt or because he was afraid of hurting his team.

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That version of Jack Campbell wasn’t the one we saw in a seven-game series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

And yet, it still wasn’t enough, as the Leafs lost 2-1 in Game 7.

Like Frederik Andersen in 2018 and 2019, and James Reimer before him, Campbell once again couldn’t get the job done in a must-win Game 7. He couldn’t outplay Andrei Vasilevskiy, just like he couldn’t outplay Montreal’s Carey Price a year ago.

But that doesn’t mean he — and the core members of this Leafs team — shouldn’t get another chance to do it again.

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Campbell, who played this season without knowing if his next contract would be coming — or from where — passed the test even if he didn’t get the Leafs past the first round. He is deserving of an extension. Based on the way he went save-for-save against Vasilievskiy for most of this series, you could even argue the 30-year-old deserves a raise.

That will be one of the many questions that GM Kyle Dubas has to answer in yet another off-season of uncertainty. That is, if Dubas is still the one running things. Anything can happen after the team failed to reach the second round after six straight years of qualifying for the post-season. What shouldn’t happen is letting Campbell walk.

The Leafs have several pending unrestricted free agents, including Ilya Mikheyev, Jason Spezza and Mark Giordano. But their most important one is the one fans call “Souuuuuuuup.”

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Go down the list of reasons why Toronto didn’t get past Tampa Bay and you won’t find Campbell’s name anywhere. He answered the bell, recording a shutout in Game 1 and posting a 3.33 goals-against average through the first six games. Even when he was pulled in Game 4, he rebounded with a gutsy 32-save performance in a pivotal Game 5 win.

In Game 7, the stakes were higher. And once again, he didn’t fold.

The Leafs didn’t need Campbell to stand on his head or steal a win. They just needed him to keep them in the game like he had the entire series. He did just that, stopping 23 of 25 shots. But unfortunately for the Leafs, the goalie at the other end of the ice was just a tiny bit better.

This series had not been a goalie duel. Far from it, actually. Heading into Game 7, both teams had combined for a whopping 44 goals in six games. Most of that had to do with the quality of talent up front than the quality of the goaltenders.

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After all, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos can make even the best look ordinary.

That changed in Game 7. After six sub-average games, you know Tampa Bay’s Vasilevskiy would show up just like Price had shown up when Montreal’s backs were against the wall against Toronto last year. Vasilevskiy, who was last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner, is that good, that clutch. After all, in a recent NHLPA player poll, he was voted as the goalie you’d want in a must-win game.

The real Vasilevskiy came to play on Saturday. This was the first game where he didn’t allow three or more goals. This was the first game where you saw the goalie who had won playoff MVP last year.

Vasilevskiy was fantastic early on, stopping John Tavares and Marner on point-blank opportunities in the first period. Even when the Leafs did beat him, Vasilevskiy had help from the on-ice officials, who waved off a crucial goal from Tavares in the second period for an illegal pick that might have changed the outcome of the game.

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Meanwhile, Campbell did his best to hold the fort. He didn’t allow any soft goals or make any mistakes. But he wasn’t perfect either. And on this night, the Leafs could have used perfection.

Tampa Bay scored first when a shot from Ross Colton deflected off Morgan Rielly’s stick and nearly fooled Campbell, who made the save, but coughed up a juicy rebound to Nick Paul for his first of two goals in the game.

After Toronto tied the game on a tic-tac-toe passing play from Marner to Matthews to Rielly, Tampa Bay made it 2-1 on another goal from Paul, who deked around T.J. Brodie before slipping a wrist shot past Campbell. 

In the third period, Paul nearly had a hat trick, when he came rushing down the wing and drove towards the net. In the process, he was shoved from behind and onto Campbell’s leg. The puck stayed out and Campbell stayed in the game.

Once again, he kept Toronto within striking distance. 

In other words, he did his job. But on this night, not enough of his teammates could do the same.

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