TORONTO (Apr. 22) — Yes, an opportunity was missed. No, it isn’t game over. Not in this series of zero momentum; not in this playoff year of road dominance. I know it’s difficult for fans of the Leafs to envision a Game 7 triumph, Tuesday night, at the TD Garden. But, Toronto and Boston are each 1–and–2 on home ice in their Atlantic Division battle and neither club has won consecutive games. If both trends continue, the Leafs will return to face Columbus on Thursday in the opener of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
My prediction prior to the series was Toronto in 6 and I wasn’t going to change it before Sunday. But, neither did the result surprise me. In a series where teams are so–evenly–matched, the club that has to win a game often will. And, that was the Bruins in Game 6. After surviving a slow start. I’m not suggesting the Leafs relaxed, but there’s almost always a different pitch among teams in an elimination game. The side facing execution ramps it up a little higher. As did Boston on Sunday. So, give the Bruins the credit they earned.
That said, Don Cherry was correct: The Leafs, though assertive at times, should not have been out–shot by a 2–to–1 margin (42–24) on home ice. And, yes, Frederik Andersen, necessarily, turned in his best performance of the series. But, as mentioned, only the Bruins had to win Game 6. These teams are so close that a slight edge in urgency and playoff experience prevailed. Now, it’s a best–of–1… for the third time in as many spring clashes since 2013 between Toronto and Boston. We know what happened previously — the blown, 4–1 lead in the third period (and overtime loss) followed by a thorough breakdown on defense and in goal last spring; again a third–period edge vanishing rather spectacularly in a 7–4 debacle. If things, indeed, come in three’s, it’ll be sayonara Toronto yet again. But, I sense there’s more to this Toronto club than the other two. More talent. More ambition. More tenacity. So, Tuesday night is hardly a foregone conclusion.
All that is certain is the Leafs will have to play their most–complete game of the series; will need to be at their very best on both sides of the center red line. Something tells me the Toronto coaching staff and players will spend much time in the next 48 hours studying the video of Friday night’s fifth game — by far, the Leafs’ most detailed and comprehensive effort on Boston ice in any of the three playoff battles. If the visitors can clone that performance, they’ll be playing again on Thursday here in town. Without question, Andersen will have to lead the way. He’ll need to be much–sharper than in the disastrous final period of Game 7 a year ago… and better, clearly, than James Reimer in the 2013 calamity on Causeway. If not for the big Dane, the Bruins would have left here Sunday with a lop–sided win. That it required an empty–net goal by Brad Marchand to seal the deal was a tribute to the Toronto goalie. He needs the game of his life on Tuesday to lift the Leafs into Round 2… and to finally invalidate the claim that he is not a “playoff” stopper.
FREDERIK ANDERSEN NEEDS THE GAME OF HIS LIFE ON TUESDAY AT TD GARDEN. SPORTSNET IMAGE
So, yes — and as per the norm in Game 7 — it will come down to a battle of goalkeepers. If Andersen out–performs Tuukka Rask on Tuesday night, the Leafs will advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Simple as that. Though neither man was particularly sharp toward the end of the regular schedule, most agreed Toronto had the better of the two stoppers. At this juncture, anyway. Now, that has to be proven… inconclusively. Should Freddy falter on Tuesday, even slightly, Boston will move on to face Columbus. It’s quite an anvil for a goalie, Game 7, on the road. But, we all understand where the puck cannot go.
And, lemme tell you, it’s been a helluva lot more bleak for the Blue and White after losing Game 6 at home in a playoff series. Next time you run into Doug Gilmour or Wendel Clark, ask about the mood in the city after Detroit demolished Toronto, 7–3, at Maple Leaf Gardens in the opening round of the 1993 Stanley Cup tournament. On the cusp of such–an embarrassment at home, not a living, breathing organism figured the Leafs had a chance in Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena. In my role as a radio reporter for The FAN–590, I was among the naysayers. But, the visitors moved on to the second round when Gilmour tied the match in the waning moments of regulation… and Nik Borschevsky re–directed a shot by Bob Rouse early in overtime. I remember it well; watching the play unfold from ice level beside the Red Wings bench.
The current Leafs were not destroyed in Game 6. Nor, again, has either club in this series won consecutively. So, the word (below) in the Toronto Star headline isn’t likely to be used should the visitors prevail at TD Garden on Tuesday. If the goalie is on his game, the Leafs have a truly believable chance.