Here we go again.
One shot for the Maple Leafs to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, one shot to put the pain of past playoff failures behind them, one shot to take a large step in restoring post-season glory for a fan base that needs it desperately.
There’s no way it will be just another hockey game on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena when the Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning get down to business in Game 7.
Never mind what has happened in the past five years, when the Leafs could not advance past the first round.
If we’re being honest, it’s more about the past four years, as no one expected the Leafs in 2017 to knock off the Washington Capitals in the first round. That the Leafs made the post-season that spring after finishing last overall in 2015-16 was an impressive accomplishment; taking the Caps, who had 23 more points than the Leafs in the regular season, to six games before being eliminated was a playoff bonus.
It’s different in 2022. This Leafs team isn’t like the others that have fallen in the recent past. When a club establishes franchise records in the regular season for points and wins and ends with a .701 points percentage, also the best in team history, it’s getting almost everything right.
There’s another notable difference this year — the Leafs’ opponent in the first round.
The Lightning is a team like no other the Leafs have met in the recent playoffs, having earned the right to have a strut in its step after winning the Stanley Cup in each of the past two years. Tampa is a deep club with stars at every position and hasn’t missed a beat in making moves to stay in the hunt for a potential third Cup in a row.
If Game 7 was decided simply from the battle scars earned in the recent playoffs, we would gather that anything experienced by Tampa in winning two Cups during a worldwide pandemic would trump the Leafs’ first-round losses to an upstart Montreal Canadiens team last year or a determined Columbus Blue Jackets group in the 2020 bubble.
There’s going to be a little more than that in play on Saturday night. The Leafs shouldn’t need any further motivation, but you have to figure that in the back of their collective minds they will be thinking about the significant lost opportunity should they depart the ice on the wrong side of the final score.
Career seasons by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and many others throughout the roster would have been largely for naught.
Consider that the window for winning for this group, too, is closing a little faster than some might want to acknowledge. Matthews and Nylander will have two years left on their contracts, and three will be remaining for Marner and captain John Tavares.
A number of players, some crucial, will be heading for unrestricted free agency this summer. That group includes goalie Jack Campbell, forwards Ilya Mikheyev, Jason Spezza and Colin Blackwell and defencemen Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin.
And it could turn out that the Lightning was the Leafs’ most difficult opponent, certainly in the initial couple of rounds. Should the Leafs move on, neither the Florida Panthers nor the Capitals would represent the kind of challenge that the savvy Lightning has thrown up.
Like the Leafs, the Panthers are trying to find their way in the post-season. The Caps, if they were able to extend their series with Florida on Friday night, are far enough removed from their Cup title in 2018 and don’t have the kind of goaltending required to make a legitimate run this year.
Put us in the group that thinks if the Leafs win Game 7 and finally survive to see the second round for the first time since 2004, a large weight of pressure will come off this group’s shoulders.
We wouldn’t argue that the Leafs would be automatic winners in the second round, though they would play Game 1 early next week without the mental shackles that have come with losing in the first round. That in itself could go a long way and be a determining factor in any success that might come.
But first, Game 7. The Leafs have spoken about earning the right with their play during the regular season to play on home ice in a deciding game. They’re getting that on Saturday night.
The opportunity awaits for the Leafs. They’re capable of taking full advantage of it. It’s on them to prove it.