The Leafs want to preclude [Carey] Price from attaining “can’t beat me” confidence.
Which a Game 7 showdown could manufacture.
— BETWEEN The Posts, May 27
TORONTO (May 31) — In the end, there is death, taxes… and the Montreal Canadiens conquering the Toronto Maple Leafs. For how many years, decades and generations can the same team have the last laugh?
It’s a question without the hint of an answer.
Neither does it matter in Montreal, but the Leafs somehow coughed up a 3–1 series lead against the weakest of the 16 playoff qualifiers in 2021. There was no magic to the collapse; simply an absence of production from all but William Nylander… and a bewildering lack of urgency on home ice in Game 7. Hindsight shows the Leafs played their best stretch of hockey in the first 10 minutes of overtime on Saturday night. But, they couldn’t beat ol’ “Money” in the Canadiens net. A silly play at the blue line by defenseman Travis Dermott — as it turned out — spelled the end for the Leafs. They seemed barely interested in the decisive match. Emotionally bamboozled before the opening face–off. Which may be the most–ominous feature of this club, moving forward.
Not a soul in either city envisioned such an end result after the Leafs hammered the Canadiens, 4–0, in Game 4 last Tuesday at the Bell Centre to grab an apparent stranglehold on the series. Yet… here we are today.
SPORTSNET/HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA
As in my previous blog, I caution fans of the Leafs about expecting any form of roster detonation. The franchise, for at least another three years, is married, contractually, to the Big 4: John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Nylander. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment could make a big splash and blow up the front office; fire Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe. Yet, what will it prove beyond appeasing infuriated, exasperated supporters yearning for blood to spill? How many general managers and coaches have the Leafs hired and bounced in the past 54 years? Where’s the evidence that another such overhaul will succeed?
There was a time, in my youth and my memory, when followers of the New York Islanders were certain the club couldn’t win with Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy. After getting bounced from the playoffs by the underdog Maple Leafs in 1978 and the rival New York Rangers in 1979. More than a decade passed in Detroit in which fans of the Red Wings were sure the club would never prevail with Steve Yzerman at the helm. Eight Stanley Cups later — four apiece — proved that observers of both teams thought prematurely.
Though it seems almost laughable right now, maybe — just maybe — the same will happen with Matthews, Marner and Co. There is no real choice, in the flat, salary capped National Hockey League for the Maple Leafs but to maintain such hope. These players are still young; still learning, and, perhaps, sufficiently annoyed by half–a–decade of playoff calamity to somehow turn it around. To show some jam. Why they could not bring a reasonable level of enthusiasm to Game 7 against Montreal has to be studied hard by management. Personnel overhaul, as mentioned, isn’t an option, but there may be other ways to dig deeper into the remarkable, maddening contrast between regular season and playoff performance. Bottom line is, the Big 4 will either get something done for the Maple Leafs in the next three years… or not at all. Until then, changing the nucleus of the team is not possible.
At the moment, however, it’s about the Canadiens spooking the Maple Leafs. Yet again. This time, without a shred of expectation. That Montreal hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993 doesn’t diminish a 10–0 lead by the Habs over Toronto in NHL titles since 1967. Or three head–to–head playoff eliminations in as many tries — the first two by Scotty Bowman’s dynasty of the late–1970’s; this one by a group of comparative paupers. Losing to the Canadiens this spring after holding a commanding 3–1 series lead is undoubtedly the deepest cut of the Shanahan era. The defeats against Washington and Boston in prior playoff rounds were hardly embarrassing and the Columbus team that kayoed Toronto in the qualifying series last August was a year removed from one of the biggest upsets in Stanley Cup history: a first–round sweep of the 62–win Tampa Bay Lightning. This defeat, on the surface, is quite illogical. With gusts to absurd. Even if we know how it happened — Matthews and Marner nearly invisible; Carey Price outplaying Jack Campbell in the clutch — determining why it happened is another matter.
Perhaps it is merely written somewhere that these two franchises — diametrically opposite for much of the past 54 years — will remain so indefinitely. I mean, how else to explain?