Let’s review the pain.
First there was that house silver streak against the mighty Washington Capitals in 2017. Rookies Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner surprised with a 2-1 lead in the series… and no one has. blamed no one when the favorites returned to drag the set into six. Just doing the dance was gravy.
The disappointment was different in Game 7 of 2018 at TD Garden. The young and capable core helped move the Boston Bruins to a 1-0, 2-1, and 4-3 lead under do-or-die stakes… only to escape an epic 7-4 loss.
In 2019, facing that same black-and-gold foe, the Leafs held three one-game leads in the first round … and let each slip through their fingers, losing once again in seven games.
In 2020 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto took an impressive 3-0 lead in the pivotal third game of a five-game tie … only to spit out a 4-3 overtime loss and give it all in control to outsiders.
This tortuous pattern has agonized, if not enraged, the fan base.
Launched from the bubble the last time the sun was this bright, Auston Matthews dubbed it “killer instinct.” As in, the Maple Leafs need to come together and develop one.
So while it certainly seems that an unfazed and more bloodthirsty state of mind has emerged during the Leafs’ 2021 regular season – which along with their claim to Canada’s top seed – all juries remain absent until that the causes of the playoffs are heard.
“We were able to whip up long stretches of game-winning games, but it’s a different time of year, of course, and a different challenge,” coach Sheldon Keefe said on Tuesday, ahead of the puck drop at the fourth game at the Bell Center.
“It remains to be seen what we can do in this situation.”
Up 2-1 over the Habs, the Maple Leafs did something that night that we haven’t seen since two lockouts two lockouts ago: they took the stranglehold on a playoff series, eliminating all but a doubt that the crown of Canada should be theirs Winnipeg Jets, a club with its own killer instinct.
By beating the offensively starving Montreal Canadiens 4-0 in their own barn for back-to-back road wins and a 3-1 lead in the series, the Maple Leafs managed to secure their first victory in 17 years.
Consider this: Ahead of Tuesday’s trend, Toronto had lost its last seven 4 games as it led 2-1.
This game 4 was written in poetry.
First, the first scratch game Alex Galchenyuk, once a Montreal draft pick, created two great passes to prepare for Toronto’s first strikes, then hit the empty net with an exclamation mark.
“Going into games and thinking about playing here in the past or stuff like that is additional discussion,” said Galchenyuk. “(I’m trying) just to keep it simple in my head.”
It was a three-point redemption story for a third overall pick who had canceled waivers this winter before being picked in a low-consequence trade by his seventh NHL franchise and sent to the farm to find his game. .
“The reports that came out of the AHL were only positive – and that’s not always the case for the guys who have spent a lot of time in the NHL and are successful in the NHL,” Keefe said.
“He just has a great passion for football. And I think he fits in really well and earned the respect of his teammates because of the attitude he brought and his work ethic and the way he played on the ice, mostly. The guys love to have him around and know he’s an important part of our team. A night like tonight is a good example of why. “
William Nylander – often criticized for exercising the kind of soft skill that doesn’t bloom in spring – scored his fourth playoff goal in as many games and set a new career high with five points. Nylander now has as many goals in this series as the Canadiens overall.
“He showed a lot of determination. His plateau battles have been unmatched in our team. He shows his balance with the puck which is difficult to do this time of year, ”said Jason Spezza.
“He’s more vocal on the bench. You can tell he really took a leadership role with John (Tavares) down. He intervened.
Spezza himself was denied by Carey Price’s desperate paddle in Game 3 and smashed five holes early, but pierced with a tap-in at the net.
Alexander Kerfoot – Toronto’s second-line emergency center with injured Tavares and sidelined Nick Foligno – rose to the challenge with a three-point performance.
Jack Campbell, who started his first straight game of the year, provided the Leafs’ first playoff shutout against the Habs since Johnny Bower did the same in Game 2 of the 1967 Stanley Cup Final.
And Joe Thornton – the oldest NHL player, now that Zdeno Chara’s Capitals have crossed the handshake line – scored on his 18th trip in season two.
“This time of year, depth is important. Your big studs will do the work every night, but it’s up to us last six to help you out and participate. And tonight, I thought we did it, ”said Thornton, who admitted the Leafs“ probably ”would have been okay. with a split in Montreal.
“But, you know, we felt greedy tonight. “
Toronto’s special teams, a sore spot as the series approaches, have been turned into advantages. New goalie No. 1 Campbell holds the fort. And the belief of Canadians is on the brink of collapse.
Are you losing a captain? Juggle programming?
Falling 0-1 in the series and 0-1 in game 2?
Being repeatedly posterized on odd men’s odds by Price, “possibly the greatest keeper of our generation,” according to Spezza?
A lesser version of the Toronto Maple Leafs could have wavered under such circumstances.
This edition is different.
“Score, defend, check – throughout the roster the guys dug in here today. These back to backs are tough, ”Keefe said. “I thought a lot of guys were actually better today than they were yesterday.
Yesterday has passed.
Today’s Leafs are now demoralizing a struggling Montreal power play, turning their special teams into strength and engaging in selfless defense.
They laugh at scrums, block punches with gusto, and spice up a Hall of Fame keeper until he has no choice but to crack.
“The stakes are so high you can see how much the players care, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Keefe said.
“Probably one of the most exciting parts of this playoffs is seeing the players find it within themselves to do these things. “
The fifth game will take place on Thursday. Toronto will have the added motivation to prevent Montreal from playing in front of the first group of Canadian fans to attend an NHL game since the pandemic.
“We’re going to see their best game next, and we have to make sure we’re ready to play,” Spezza said. “The fourth is the hardest to get.”
You don’t have to tell a Maple Leafs fan that.