Leafs try again to get past first-round mountain

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Yes, they’ve been at this door before.

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Seven times to be exact since 2018, the Maple Leafs have reached the entrance to the second round needing just one win. But they were unable to turn the key, jimmy the lock or simply put a stiff shoulder through the frame.

Instead of getting in, they’ve been stuck on the porch a total of five rounds since 2017,  to hear rivals mock them, their own fans wail and the media keep needling it has been 18 years without an opening series to celebrate.

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Leafs Nation knows elimination at this stage all too well, be it through injury, suspension, a goaltending breakdown, thin defence, their young guns squeezing sticks or coaches pushing the wrong buttons.

Thursday could change all that, at the expense of the two-time champion Tampa Bay Lightning no less. From the worst of the first-round follies last year – blowing a 3-1 lead to the under-rated Montreal Canadiens – the Leafs could unseat a reigning Cup winner for the first time since 1967 when they beat the Habs for their last title.

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“We had opportunities last year, we didn’t get it done, we know that,” said centre Jason Spezza on Wednesday as they gathered to travel south. “We’ve given ourselves two chances (Game 6 Thursday, Game 7 if necessary, Saturday in Toronto). But more importantly, there needs to be the similar urgency that we had in the last game. That urgency needs to follow us to Tampa.”

Down 2-0 early and in penalty trouble, the Leafs were held in by goalie Jack Campbell and thanks in part to a Spezza pep talk at the first intermission, rallied for a 4-3 victory.

Spezza spoke up because he doesn’t want what’s likely his last NHL season at age 38 to end early again, nor that of fellow 1,000-game Cup-less comrades Mark Giordano and Wayne Simmonds.

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The rest of the Leafs responded to his words, whether it was core forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, longest-serving defenceman Morgan Rielly or captain John Tavares. Because they’re all getting sick of handshake lines just two weeks into the two-month odyssey every NHLer dreams of experiencing.

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Sixteen wins are required for a Cup each year and Tuesday marked 16 in total since Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Rielly were fresh-faced kids in their first spring series against the Washington Capitals. That was a good try before falling in six games and many bountiful playoffs seemed at hand. Then came two years of dropping the deciding seventh match in hostile Boston by a combined 12-5 score, the Scotiabank bubble against Columbus when the Leafs were blanked in the finale of a best-of-five and being up on Montreal before Carey Price and his dogged checkers neutralized them in three consecutive losses.

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“You try and learn from mistakes, but we’re also a different group (than last year),” Spezza pointed out. “Guys are at different points in their careers, guys have matured.”

A possible bonus if they win Thursday could be extra rest if the Washington – Florida series goes the distance, but no one is looking beyond Amalie Arena for now. They and their impatient fans have come this far and been gutted enough times.

Coach Sheldon Keefe said the biggest lesson from last May was not to give the opposition any life. Hard to do when Tampa has come back from both losses in this series and is 16-0 after a defeat since the 2020 playoffs,

“This is a different opponent for us,” Keefe said. “We believe we have the right mix and all the right things happening to have the confidence to go out and play very well. We know what we’re in for in Tampa, but we’ve played well in that building. We’re trying to make them uncomfortable.”

That’s already the case. Tampa coach Jon Cooper keeps insisting the series’ deficit is more down to his team’s mistakes than Campbell’s play or any other Leaf tactics.

“But give Toronto credit for being able to capitalize,” Cooper said Wednesday. “They’re just beating us at our own game. Maybe in years past other teams haven’t done that when we’ve broken down.”

“We can bring that up, (their) ghosts of yester-year and but we can’t sit here and say ‘they haven’t won in years past so they won’t win again’.”

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