Gardiner not the only Maple Leaf deserving of post-series criticism
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Jake Gardiner's the easy target.

Coming into Tuesday's winner-take-all tilt against the Boston Bruins, the polarizing defenseman already had the cringe-worthy lowlights from last year's Game 7, and the attachment to the Toronto Maple Leafs' historic collapse in spring 2013.

Gardiner had history - the worst kind - and then he turned the puck over late in the first period. The blunder led to Boston's second goal, the eventual game-winner in a 5-1 Bruins victory that ended the Leafs' season and potentially Gardiner's tenure in Toronto.

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By night's end, Gardiner had been on the ice for three goals against, zero goals for. It was tough to watch such a poor showing.

Then again, when you take a step back and and add perspective, it's fair to say Gardiner was fine through six games. He wasn't good, or bad. But, considering he was battling a nagging injury and clearly far from his best self, he performed OK.

There are others to blame for the Leafs' third straight first-round exit, anyway.

Toronto opened the scoring in Game 6 on Sunday but blew a golden chance to advance. They could have avoided going back to Boston then and there, instead putting themselves in a vulnerable position. The Leafs didn't rise to the occasion in Game 7.

The head coach

There's no sugarcoating it: Mike Babcock flat out didn't perform.

The Leafs coach made some questionable decisions over the course of the series, refusing to step outside his comfort zone, and is now 0-3 in playoff series since president Brendan Shanahan hired him in 2015.

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Aside from sliding William Nylander over to center after Nazem Kadri's suspension - something the bench boss was essentially forced to do - Babcock didn't rock the boat in any significant way. He had ample time to bust out the line blender and try to spark offense at key moments - but didn’t.

You could pick apart Babcock's deployment and usage all day, but let's focus on a few of eyebrow-raising developments from the deciding game.

Patrick Marleau, 39, should be used sparingly at this stage in his career. Yet he played 14 minutes and 35 seconds in Game 7. Fourth-line center Frederik Gauthier should have been glued to the bench for the second half of the contest in an effort to free up extra shifts for Toronto's deadliest weapons. But he wasn't, despite the Bruins holding the lead for two-plus periods.

Meanwhile, Auston Matthews, one of the sport's utmost game-changing talents, finished with an underwhelming 18:48 of ice. That total is acceptable in the regular season. In a do-or-die playoff game, though, your best forward should probably be skating closer to 23 minutes.

Not double-shifting Matthews as the season slipped away seems counterproductive and legitimately odd. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid - two of Matthews' contemporaries - play fewer than 20 minutes in a Game 7.

Calling for Babcock's dismissal, like many Leafs fans are doing online, feels like an overreaction. But the man is no doubt deserving of heavy criticism.

The special teams

Neither Boston or Toronto gained a significant advantage during 5-on-5 play over seven games. It's the simple truth, as evidenced by the Leafs' advanced metrics:

50.8 48.8 51.5 52.2 51.1

[CF% = shot attempts for percentage; SF% = shots for percentage; SCF% = scoring chances for percentage; GF% = goals for percentage; xGF% = expected goals for percentage]

In summary, the Leafs narrowly won the even-strength battle in four of five categories. This suggests special teams greatly affected the series' outcome.

Now, the Leafs' power play did alright for itself, scoring three times on 16 tries. Boston, on the other hand, went haywire, netting seven goals on 16 man-advantage opportunities.

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Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has an abundance of options on his first unit. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Torey Krug, and Marcus Johansson form a killer five, and they contributed five of Boston's PP goals despite not receiving a single opportunity in Game 7.

So, really, this isn't totally on Toronto's penalty kill. Boston, who had the third-ranked PP in the regular season, is a wrecking ball.

That being said, seven goals are simply too many. Those goals shifted the series in the Bruins' favor when Boston was being out-performed at 5-on-5, and it ultimately cost the Leafs the series.

The others

The Leafs could have easily won this best-of-seven drama, thanks to a handful of admirable performances.

Matthews scored five goals. Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev formed a solid shutdown pair. John Tavares contributed, especially on the defensive side of the puck. Morgan Rielly's tour de force kept Toronto in Game 6, when they fell apart in the second period.

Then there's some seesaw players.

Frederik Andersen deserves both praise and (dis)honorable mention. He was stellar through six games, but let in a couple of softies Tuesday. Like Gardiner, he should be judged on his entire body of work, not just 60 minutes. But in divvying up blame, he gets a passing nod of disapproval.

Mitch Marner's a similar case. He may have scored twice in the opening game, collected an assist in both Games 3 and 4, and blocked back-to-back shots in the dying seconds of Game 3, but he failed to mark the scoresheet in Games 5, 6, or 7. For that reason, the team's leading scorer is partly responsible for the series going sideways.

Lastly, Kadri.

The longtime Leaf took himself out of the lineup with that unnecessary cross-check on Jake DeBrusk. Prior to the hit, Kadri was one of Toronto's best players through nearly two games. The Leafs are built to win with a 1-2-3 punch down the middle, and he denied the club that advantage.

The Kadri hit was the beginning of the end. Game 6's second period was the confidence breaker. And the first period of Game 7, well, it brought Gardiner, the Leafs, and a tortured fan base back to familiar territory.

John Matisz is theScore's National Hockey Writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

Gardiner not the only Maple Leaf deserving of post-series criticism
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