A few hours before starting the 2022 playoffs, the Maple Leafs were in a familiar position, trying to outrun their past by getting on a post-season roll.
For the sixth time in this core group’s tenure, they will try and win an opening round series, beginning Monday night at Scotiabank Arena with a tall order, the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Coach Sheldon Keefe finalized his roster, confirming winger Ondrej Kase would start Game 1 after six weeks out with a concussion, while Michael Bunting would not, and has now entrusted the team to put that painful string of defeats, contrasted by this record season in wins and points, to maximum use.
“There is great belief on our team,” Keefe said after an optional skate. “We know what’s at stake, what we’ve been through to get to this point and know what we’re playing for; our fans, our city and each other.
“It’s a great challenge, but a great opportunity to push past this.”
It’s not just the first-round flops that are scrutinized at this time of year, but that Toronto has not won a series since 2004, a Stanley Cup since 1967, or even been a finalist. This best-of-seven starts on the 55th anniversary of that last win in this town at the Gardens, in an NHL era where just two rounds were required to win it all.
Scarborough’s Wayne Simmonds knows that history better than most.
“I think it’s kind of beating a dead horse,” he said of the ’67 baggage. “I’ve been here two years, a lot of the guys in here are new to it as well. We get sick and tired of hearing it, but it’s on us to change the narrative.”
It has been a year since the last playoff setback, a blown 3-1 series lead to Montreal. Mitch Marner, held to four assists in that shocker to the low-seeded Habs, has been as anxious as anyone for this chance at redemption.
“We played the whole regular season for this opportunity. Definitely (the various losses since 2017 sting) but you can’t think about those. You have to be here in the moment.
“I spent the summer reflecting on that stuff, but the past is the past.”
Marner sees the path to victory in this series as “limiting their chances on the rush. There’s a lot of skill over there with their defencemen as well. They are big, heavy guys who want to get to our net so we want to keep them off our goalie (Jack Campbell) and get on top of theirs (Andrei Vasilevskiy), get second chances.”
Both Keefe and counterpart Jon Cooper have said an intense series is unavoidable given the size, speed and character of the two clubs. Cooper knows Marner from coaching him in Team Canada at the world championship and World Cup.
“I really enjoyed Marner,” Cooper said. “But for any player of his stature, you have to make them uncomfortable. In our head, we have things we’ll try to do, all friendships aside, do everything we can to put him in a situation he doesn’t like to be in. But that’s harder to do with elite players.”
Cooper must also contend with Rocket Richard Trophy winner Auston Matthews, while Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov present Toronto’s defence with potential headaches. Stamkos is pumped for this first-ever series between the teams in the shadow of his Unionville backyard.
Keefe and Cooper were to meet with league series’ officiating supervisor Paul Devorski on Monday afternoon to be briefed on what referees and linesmen will be watching for.
“It’s informative, getting a sense of what their perspective is,” Keefe said. “It will probably be more important as the series gets going, as you’re asking questions and getting feedback.”
Keefe had no worries about thrusting Kase back in the lineup in such a high stakes situation. He has been practicing for several days.
“First, he’s a very good player who makes a difference on our team when he’s in. I’d have loved if he could’ve played last week, he just wasn’t comfortable. We were going to put him in at some point, because he is a difference maker on our team.”
The same goes for first-line left winger Bunting, who is trying to get through a leg injury and has not been able to fully partake in practice. Alex Kerfoot takes his place with Matthews and Marner.
Keefe said his hardest decision was likely telling centre Jason Spezza to stand down for Game 1, given he’s the only member of the 1,000-game non-Cup trio with Mark Giordano and Simmonds not to play. But he said the Leafs will employ their depth players at some point as the attrition of the series begins to tell.