TORONTO (May 30) — There is no mystery as to why the heavily favored Leafs are going to Game 7 against the highly inferior Montreal Canadiens. Neither is there any mystery to this blog.
Every pre–series declaration of a four or five–game Toronto rout — and there were many — was predicated on the club’s big scorers continuing their pace from the regular season. Not on Auston Matthews having a ridiculous one goal after six matches. A work colleague of mine wondered Saturday night why Matthews hasn’t “shown up” for the playoffs. My answer was that he has “shown up.” And, that’s the problem. You can’t just “show up” in the Stanley Cup tournament as you may on any of 20 or 25 nights during the long playoff warm–up. The shooters that are counted on — and are legitimate superstars — lift their performance well beyond the October–to–April level (January to May this year)… and they do so commensurately. In other words, the deeper the playoff run and the higher the stakes, the better they play. To this point in his still–young National Hockey League career, Toronto’s best shooter, perhaps of all time, has failed the post–season test. That doesn’t mean Matthews will continue to struggle. We all know he can break out with a mega–performance at any time and against any opponent. But, there is no question the Maple Leafs are where they are right now — on the cusp of perhaps blowing a 3–1 series lead against the least–threatening of the 16 playoff qualifiers — because their best player has been silent.
THE HABS WIN AGAIN. JESPERI KOTKANIEMI BEATS JACK CAMPBELL LATE IN THE FIRST OVERTIME IN MONTREAL TO SET UP A SEVENTH AND DECIDING MATCH ON MONDAY AT SCOTIABANK ARENA. SPORTSNET/CBC HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA
You may consider it unfair to place such onus on Matthews in a team sport. But, I guarantee we’d be praising him to high heaven if he had guided the Leafs past the Canadiens earlier in the series, as so many anticipated. Same with Mitch Marner, who has four assists. A discussion thread on the Leafs page of H–F Boards asks “Are Matthews and Marner choke artists in the playoffs?” The ‘C’ word is awfully damning in professional sport, yet not entirely unjustified, here. At least, up to now. For some reason, fans and media in Toronto keep celebrating regular–season accomplishments, even as the Maple Leafs — one way or another — disappoint in the playoffs. If it’s not soft, killer goals eluding Frederik Andersen at pivotal moments, it’s the big money men (William Nylander excluded in this series) coming up short. At some point, Leaf observers will learn to temper their enthusiasm for what occurs prior to the Cup tournament; other than, of course, recognizing the wins and points needed to qualify.
For whatever it’s worth, the Leafs have neither held, nor coughed up, a 3–1 series lead in 34 years… not since the second round of the 1987 Stanley Cup playoffs. After knocking off St. Louis in six games (who can forget Motor City Smitty opening the scoring on a breakaway in Game 6, sending Maple Leaf Gardens into hysterics?), Toronto went up, 3–1, on the Detroit Red Wings when forward Mike Allison beat Glen Hanlon in overtime, also at the Gardens. Despite another dismal regular season (32–42–6 for 70 points) — commonplace under the ownership of Harold Ballard in the 80’s — the Leafs were one victory shy of meeting Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup semifinals. But, that victory never came. Why? The Leads couldn’t score (sound familiar?). They lost 1–0, 4–2 and 3–0 in the final three matches; Detroit taking the series on home ice in Game 7.
The only apparent similarity between that Leafs team and the current one is the city it calls home. At least we figured as much before the series began with Montreal. Right now, the parallel is rather haunting. And, the task of hanging on against the Canadiens entirely daunting if Matthews merely “shows up” again on Monday.