A Maple Leafs team in a good frame of mind departed for Tampa on Wednesday hoping to break a bad playoff habit.
After losing all seven elimination games since 2018 — part of an 0-5 record in first rounds going back to 2017, they’re in a position to knock out the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning.
While it will be a road contest Thursday, there is a different vibe to the 2022 Leafs, who insist they’ve learned from all those bitter post-season defeats, topped by blowing a 3-1 lead to under-rated Montreal a year ago.
They have the offence led by young guns Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, a goaltender who can steal them a game such as Jack Campbell did again in Game 5, improved defence and a growing belief they can beat the Eastern Conference’s best.
A possible bonus if they win Thursday could be extra rest if the Washington — Florida series goes the distance.
“We had opportunities last year, we didn’t get it done, we know that,” said centre Jason Spezza, whose convincing first intermission speech on Tuesday helped turn a 2-0 deficit into a 4-3 win. “We’ve given ourselves two chances to win, but there needs to be the urgency (as in Game 5) and it needs to follow us to Tampa.
“You try and learn from mistakes, but we’re also a different group. Guys are at different points in their careers, guys have matured.”
The 38-year-old Spezza, one of three Leaf veterans of 1,000 games without a Stanley Cup, spoke up after a wonky 20 minutes where the Leafs were fortunate the Lightning lead wasn’t bigger.
“I felt like it was needed at the time and to speak from the heart,” Spezza said. “We’ll keep (what was said) in the room, (but) I loved the response. There was great desperation from our group, we recognized the situation we were in.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe said the biggest takeaway from last May’s shocking defeat to the Habs was not to give the opposition any life. 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.”
Keefe might not touch his roster for Thursday after Game 5 decisions to keep defenceman Justin Holl, to return Michael Bunting to the first line with Matthews and Marner and to break up Nylander and John Tavares on the second unit, moving Nylander with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall.
Campbell went on the ice for a few minutes Wednesday with the reserve players. He’s now been in net for 12 playoff games for Toronto with a record of 6-6. The franchise as a whole has not celebrated a series win since 2004.
“There has been a lot of adversity in playoffs over the years, but we’re focused on right now,” Campbell said. “They’re a pretty good team over there.
“Part of our 3-2 lead because of our fans, they’ve been amazing all along. There’s nothing we want more than to keep winning for them.”