The entire 2021-22 season has been a trial for the Maple Leafs, so one more date with the docket is not fazing them.
They feel they’ve made the case they belong with serious playoff contenders, though in Saturday’s Game 7 they’ll need a strong closing argument of 60 minutes (or more) to prove it to themselves and the court of hockey opinion.
“All the work we’ve put into this year has prepared us, to give us a chance to win this series,” said coach Sheldon Keefe in a Friday Zoom call as they returned from a 4-3 overtime loss in Tampa Bay that tied the series. “Because of all that work, (the deciding match) happens to be in Toronto and gives us great confidence.”
It has been 12 eventful months for the Leafs, picking up the pieces from an upset playoff loss to Montreal which was more heavy baggage to carry into October as part of five first-round losses. Then they struggled early and had COVID-19 cause two major disruptions, an outbreak trapping most of the team in Western Canada just before Christmas and the mid-season NHL pause that hampered their momentum.
A couple of other self-inflicted wounds took them out of first place contention and forced a series against the Cup champion Lightning. Yet in a year they set franchise records for wins, points and racked up many individual honours, it was a match they’ve embraced.
Their 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 leads, all taken back by the seasoned Lightning, were capped Thursday when they rallied from down two goals to be a half period away from their first series win since 2004. Then came consecutive minors in a largely penalty-free evening, the 5-on-3 tying goal and Brayden Point’s winner late in the first overtime period.
Yes, a hell of a season, but for an impatient fan base, the ghosts of playoffs past are more prominent. Eight chances to win a series since 2018 have now been wasted, including three last season against Montreal.
“Our team this season is uniquely different,” countered Keefe. “Our top players are executing at critical times (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Jack Campbell and in Game 6, John Tavares) and playing well as a group.
“To go toe to toe with the back-to-back champions, I feel our top players are thriving, the grit we’ve shown to come back … I still feel this team has lots of fight.
“The opponent doesn’t make it easier, but we’re not uncomfortable going into this. The feeling in our team is one of great confidence.”
The Leafs who were made available Friday were not hanging their heads after Game 6.
“That’s playoffs, there will be ups and downs along the way,” defenceman Mark Giordano said. “Starting at home is something we’re looking forward to.”
Giordano echoed Matthews’ sentiment from Thursday that the team should just “put our balls on the line and go for it” at Game 7 puck drop.
“We have to have that mentality. When we’re on our game, we’re good enough to beat everybody. It’s tough right after a game like (Thursday). But you wake up, it’s a new day and tomorrow we’ll be back home. I’m looking forward to playing at that game.”