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The Toronto Maple Leafs have approached the edge of the cliff many times in recent memory, but you have to be an adult approaching 30 to remember the last time the Leafs did not hurtle themselves to the rocks below and won a seventh and deciding game to advance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It was April 20, 2004 when the Leafs with six Hall of Famers (head coach Pat Quinn, Mats Sundin, Joe Nieuwendyk, Ed Belfour, Brian Leetch, and Ron Francis) scored three times in the first period on Ottawa’s Patrick Lalime to win Game 7 4-1 at Air Canada Centre. Just over 18 years later, Toronto has the same opportunity to advance to the second round facing the reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena.
Unlike past years, where the 18-year drought of failing to advance in the playoffs would way heavily on the current club, the Leafs outwardly have taken things in stride, are not focusing on the past, and expressing confidence that they can get the job done after failing to close out the series in Game 6 overtime loss.
“It's obviously a different group, different people in the locker room. We did different things this year, just accomplished other things and we have confidence in there, so we have to make sure that we're bringing that confidence on the ice." Leafs winger Mitch Marner said after the morning skate on Saturday.
Toronto was tentative and crumbled under the pressure of an elimination game after falling behind in the first period in Game 7 against Boston in 2019, in Game 5 against Columbus in 2020, and after Brendan Galagher’s opening goal in Game 7 vs. Montreal, but they believe that the current roster has learned from past mistakes and are ready to win.
"I think we came out a little flat in those games (and) maybe a little bit scared to lose. We don't need to be scared to lose. We have a great team, and the best team will win tonight." Leafs winger William Nylander said.
The officiating became an unexpected factor in Game 6 after setting a particular standard in the first five games of the series, as only four power plays were handed out and the more wiley Lightning took advantage of some greater latitude with their season on the line.
"What is more important (is) that our expectation is that there are going penalties, they are going to call infractions. We have to be responsible with our sticks. We've got to move our feet. We've got to establish body positioning. At the same time, we can't get distracted. We need to just focus on how the game is or isn't called." Keefe said. "There's enough distractions and enough things going on outside of our control as it is. We just have to stay focused on playing shift to shift."
The Leafs will start the same lineup as Games 5 and 6, and kept the same forward line combos and defensive pairings at the morning skate on Saturday and it is expected that the Lightning will not make any changes as well.
The confident talk from the Leafs is a departure from past seasons, now it is time to see if the end result is.
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