The Maple Leafs departed Scotiabank Arena on Friday night with a win, through celebrants filling the bars in patio weather and clinking glasses around a CN Tower lit up in team colours.
It’s a vibe they somehow have to channel now into the rink against the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose many advantages in this opening-round playoff series as two-time Stanley Cup champions does not include home-ice advantage.
“We’re going to need every edge we can get,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe before a day off to brace for Game 1 on Monday. “You want to build positive momentum in a series, against a team like this especially. The fans are really excited about our team.
“Home ice is big. We played all season for it (finally securing it a week ago). The first four games are all you’re guaranteed in a series at this point, two in each building, so there is no real advantage in that sense.
“But certainly starting at home is great and we want to earn our way to an advantage in the back end of the series (hosting a potential Game 5 and 7).”
The SBA hasn’t really been that den of intimidation the Leafs have tried to hard-wire to their post-season needs . Going back the past 21 playoff games there against teams not named the Ottawa Senators their record is 7-14, which fair or not, includes the 2020 bubble when all five games in the Columbus series were in the empty Bay St. barn because of COVID-19.
The Leafs have lost in the first round the past six series, five in the Auston Matthews–Mitch Marner era, four times at home in an elimination game.
This set should be a different animal, the first time since 2019 with a projected full house of 19,000-plus. Keefe’s players will be in their own dressing room and sleep in their own beds, having had four days off around Saturday’s win over Boston when the majority of their star players were rested.
Last line change for Keefe means putting his best checkers and defencemen against Lightning aces Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov or ideally the same group of forwards wearing them down so that Matthews and Marner or John Tavares and William Nylander can come in and capitalize on an offensive zone draw. The chants of ‘Soup’ (Jack Campbell) , ‘Boosh’ (Ilya Lyubushkin) or ‘MVP’ for Matthews are meant to fire up the home side and maybe even rattle the visitors.
But if it were all that easy, every home team would win every series. And the Lightning does not scare easily on the road after so many triumphant series.
“A lot gets made of that, also in different sports,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly in playing down home ice being a guarantor of success.
“Over the course of the last week or so when (home ice) has been up in the air, we try and make the most of it.
“(The atmosphere) is a first for a lot of our guys. We look forward to being in here next week with a full building, fans and all that stuff and we’ll enjoy it.”
You need not remind the Leafs that many years of first-round frustration is pent up in the stands, never mind three decades since downtown Toronto was brought to a joyous halt every second night by back-to-back conference final trips.
Then there are those 55 years without a Stanley Cup, the longest drought in NHL history. Jason Spezza said the Leafs can’t get too caught up in the circus, if crowd behaviour is over the top in a positive or negative aspect.
“It’s just all business for us,” Spezza said. “Home ice, road ice, doesn’t matter, we’re just going to focus on Game 1.”
STAMKOS AIMS TO STICK IT TO HIS HOMETOWN TIES
The hometown star of the opposition coming back to try and eliminate his long-suffering childhood team in a series that begins on the anniversary of their 1967 Stanley Cup win is just a teaser of the Tampa-Toronto story lines.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Steven Stamkos told the media after the Lightning’s Friday win on Long Island helped set up the first ever playoff meeting of the clubs.
“For sure, there’s going to be a lot of hype coming into this round, but our group is a mature group. We know how to handle a lot of different situations come playoff time, and we’ll have to lean on our experience here.”
Unionville’s Stamkos is one of the GTA’s favourite sons, with ties to famous development clubs such as the Markham Waxers and North York Canadians and an OHL career in Sarnia.
Drafted No. 1 overall by Tampa in 2008, he has 50- and 60-goal seasons on his resume and his name on the past two Stanley Cups.
He warmed up for this best-of-seven with a hat trick on Friday, bringing him to 42 goals, and 26 points in his final nine games for a career high 106. His 58 points against the Leafs in 45 games are the most he has against any team.
“For me, it’s not going to change anything,” he said. “We’ve got a job to do, and that’s to win some games here in the playoffs no matter the opponent.”