It all set up so well for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Go down early, things look bleak, but the boys claw their way back through their best player and the captain that lives and breathes Maple Leaf blue. It was storybook stuff. The start of the third period was great, too, with intelligent plays, and quick chances. Jack Campbell was locked in, but then the refs. Things were never, ever going to be easy for the Leafs. Any sane Leaf fan knew this. That’s why when the Buds came back from two goals down to take the lead, even then, we knew it was not over. Maybe a crazy carom off the end boards results in a Lightning goal, or Steven Stamkos burns his hometown team once and for all, but neither of that happened. Instead, sheer stupidity from 4 officials and horribly timed mistakes from a few Leaf players set this series up for a do-or-die game seven in Toronto.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Leaf fan that would complain about Toronto’s performance in game six. They played objectively well. How can you single out a Leaf player and be upset with their game? Probably the worst performer was Alex Kerfoot, but I didn’t think he played poorly. He just made two brainless errors that ended up having a significant impact on the outcome of the game. Jack Campbell certainly did not play as well as he did in game five, but he still made some vital saves, and it would be unfair to put this loss on him. Game six was a pretty good encapsulation of the Leafs’ playoff history over the last five years. Even when they do pretty much everything right, things can still go horribly wrong.
The first period of game six was going smoothly for Toronto until Kerfoot’s first mistake of the night. It was a quiet period up to that point, but the Buds had the game under control. Kerfoot’s blind behind-the-back pass was unnecessary and quite stupid, and you just knew Ondrej Palat was not going to miss that. The Leafs continued to play well and were carrying play to start the second period. That pressure led to their first power-play opportunity of the game and a golden chance to even the score at one. Instead, Toronto’s dysfunctional side of its power-play made an appearance and another terrible neutral zone turnover, this time by Mikheyev, gave Anthony Cirelli a partial breakaway, and he buried it to increase Tampa’s lead. It was hard to be optimistic at this time, which is a bit of a theme with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but cooler heads could see that the Buds were playing well. They just needed one bounce. That bounce came when Hart and Ted Lindsay trophy finalist Auston Matthews redirected Mark Giordano’s point shot past Vasilevskiy to cut the lead in half. Impressive play by Giordano to even get the puck through the traffic, and of course, Matthews did what he does best.
Both teams started to find their legs at this point, and the action was back and forth. The Leaf fourth line had some great shifts throughout the game in limited minutes, and Toronto’s second goal is a prime example. After a solid thirty seconds in the Lightning’s zone, the puck was scooped out to the Leaf blue line, where a quick regroup pass was threaded up the middle to Ondrej Kase, who found Jason Spezza with a touch pass. Spezza controlled it and saw the Leaf captain coming off the bench and into the action. Tie game.
Another bounce for the Leafs; they were finally getting rewarded for their perseverance. A Toronto icing with just over eleven seconds to go in the second was worrying. It was such a perfect time for the Leafs to undo all their hard work, but yet again, the Buds showed not to be nervous but excited. A big faceoff win by Tavares allowed the puck to be chipped out of the zone to Kerfoot, who banked it off the wall to Nylander. Nylander kept his feet moving, got into a good area just below the left faceoff circle, and made a nifty backhand pass to Tavares, who did the rest.
This was it, twenty minutes away from winning a playoff round, and there was an air of anticipation across Toronto. And the first nine minutes went great! The Leafs completely contained the Lightning. They were playing smart but simple hockey and weren’t sitting back by any means. Then, the “high-stick.” Why are the Leafs always getting burned by called or miscalled high sticking penalties? (shoutout Doug Gilmour). You’ve all seen it by now, but here it is anyway.
The referee fell for Cal Foote’s bait. What is most frustrating is when you watch the Rangers-Penguins game and see that the refs were able to review a missed high-sticking call in that game which led to a Rangers four-minute power-play. One high-stick can be reviewed. One can’t. There is an abhorrent lack of consistency when it comes to refereeing (I know it was reviewed because he was bleeding; I don’t care, review them all if you have to). Anyways, Kerfoot’s second mistake of the game put the Lightning on a five on three power-play, which they subsequently scored on. Tie game, once again.
The Leafs played a great overtime, but it was Tampa who scored to send this series where it always had to go, game seven. For Leaf demons to truly be exorcized, it couldn’t happen in a game six or a four-game sweep and it almost certainly could not happen away from home. Game six was full of positive signs for the Leafs. Their best players showed up again, and the defence played fantastically. Justin Holl stepped up and played maybe his best game of the year. They didn’t hang their head after a couple of mistakes, they grinded it out and kept on the task at hand. They played that game like it was a game seven and now they have to do it again. Hockey is not a game that one would consider fair. It is fast-paced, exciting and totally enthralling, but in no way does that mean that the team who should win, does win. Despite this, the Leafs need to make sure in-game seven that they are the team who should win and hope that good luck follows.
Chris Johnston, a great freelance Leafs reporter, wrote an article yesterday pointing out that even if the Leafs lose game seven tonight, they should still be seen as different than the past iterations of this hockey team. As much as I agree with him and the sentiment, no one will see it that way if the Leafs fail to win game seven. There is no room for nuance in the world of hockey discourse. Yes, this Leaf team is evidently different to 2021’s version and all of those before them. It is obvious to anyone that watches hockey that is true. Tampa Bay has not lost a playoff series in three years. In that span they have played game seven just one time, beating the Islanders last year. If this was round two, there would no doubt be some respect from hockey fans for what the Leafs have accomplished in this series. But it isn’t, it is still the first round and the fact remains that Toronto has only seen the first round of the playoffs for the last eighteen years. If the Leafs lose this series, it will feel different from past playoff losses for the first couple of weeks, maybe even months. But over time, that distinction will fade and we will look back on this series being potentially the biggest failure of them all. A loss in game seven would spark massive changes in the Leafs’ locker room and potentially their front office. It would be the end of a promising, yet unsuccessful era.
Game seven is not lost yet, however. There is always a reason to be pessimistic about this hockey team. But I again stress that being optimistic is the way to go. This is exactly what they have been playing for all season. Game seven at home. Between the two teams playing this game seven, on the whole, Toronto has been the better team for 88 games of this NHL season. They finished above Tampa in the regular season, and they have outplayed them in four of six playoff games. So as many reasons as there are to be negative, there are countless opposite reasons to be positive too.
The Leafs have to start the game well. They have not scored first in the last three do-or-die elimination games, which has killed them. Getting behind early for the third game in a row in this series would be a lot to come back from. It will be vital to get the crowd into it early. If I am Sheldon Keefe, I am starting Marner, Matthews and Nylander for the first shift to get them feeling good as quickly as possible. There is always a chance it comes down to goaltending, and on that front, all you can really do is pray Jack Campbell plays his best game of the series. Every year a Leaf goalie has let in at least one soft goal in game seven, and that cannot happen tonight. The Leafs must make Tampa work their asses off for every shot on the net. It all comes down to this, balls on the line, history on the line, a dynasty on the line. The Leafs are going to win game seven and play the Florida Panthers in round two, and I cannot wait. Go, Buds Go.