Leafs Playoff Path Is Wide Open

What if Columbus shocked the Lightning; Washington beat Carolina; the Leafs upset Boston and the Islanders defeated Pittsburgh? Second–round match–ups would be Washington vs. New York Islanders and Toronto vs. Columbus; the Maple Leafs with home–ice advantage. Strange stuff, indeed, but not without precedent.
— BETWEEN THE POSTS: Apr. 3, 2019

TORONTO (Apr. 17) — Trust me: It was never remotely considered. By anyone. What I penned flippantly in this corner on Apr. 3 was the equivalent of “imagine winning the Lotto Max jackpot.” The chances were so minuscule, they could be mentioned only in jest; as a gag. Yet, here we are — two weeks later — and the impossible has happened. The Tampa Bay Lightning, after a record–tying 62–win season, has been swept from the opening round of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Swept! Four straight. It is, undeniably, the biggest upset in Stanley Cup history… and no team may benefit more than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Remember, it was Toronto that faced the toughest challenge of the 16 playoff qualifiers — having to, first, eliminate its perennial spring–time nemesis, the Boston Bruins, and then the best National Hockey League team since Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t a matter of maybe needing to oust Tampa Bay in Round 2; it was a given. Under no conceivable circumstance would the Lightning get knocked off by whichever opponent nailed down the No. 2 wild card berth in the Eastern Conference. Not on anyone’s life. Well… as ESPN icon Chris Berman often says: “That’s why they play the games.” Given it required the Blue Jackets the minimum four–such matches to destroy Tampa Bay will be marveled at for decades — in the Buckeye state; on the Gulf coast of Florida, and well beyond.


SIMPLY UNBELIEVABLE… THERE ARE NO OTHER WORDS. NBC/SPORTSNET IMAGES

  
So, yeah — those goofy, throw–away lines in my Apr. 3 blog are nearing reality. It’ll be Toronto vs. Columbus in the second round of the Stanley Cup tournament… unless the Bruins can beat the Leafs in three of the remaining four games in their first–round clash. There’s still plenty of work to do, beginning in Game 4 Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena. But, the Maple Leafs are two wins shy of entering a far–less–muddled path to the Stanley Cup final. With the NHL’s No. 1 team out of the way, and the New York Islanders having swept Pittsburgh, all six remaining teams in the Eastern Conference are a legitimate Cup threat. But, no club has potentially received more of a break than the Maple Leafs… providing they can take out the Bruins.

If this doesn’t serve as motivation for the Leafs to play the game of their lives on Wednesday, nothing will. Let’s not underestimate the Bruins — a playoff–hardened bunch capable of reversing the series momentum yet again. There has been no correlation at all between the first three games of the series: two of them lop–sided (one per team); a third hotly contested in which the Leafs finished on top by a goal. If there is a pattern, Boston should prevail by a slim margin in Game 4, thereby setting up a best–of–three, beginning at TD Garden on Friday. But, the Leafs have to be salivating; their hands are so tantalizingly–close to the Bruin necks. Another triumph on Bay St. puts a stranglehold on the series and allows the Leafs to win Games 3 and 4 at home for the very–first time after splitting the opening matches on the road in a best–of–seven affair. If there’s a smidgen of killer–instinct in the Toronto dressing room, it will emerge on Wednesday.

Tampa Bay has disappeared. Like a flash of Lightning.

The Eastern path to the Stanley Cup final is no longer riddled with boulders.

This isn’t to suggest the Leafs will walk over the Blue Jackets. Or, the Islanders… the Capitals… even the upstart Carolina Hurricanes, should the defending Stanley Cup champions be upset.

But, it’s right there for the Blue and White. Against the Black and Gold. Can they grab it?

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