TORONTO (Apr. 23) — Let us begin with some words of playoff caution:
2017: Maple Leafs led the Washington Capitals 2–1 after Game 3.
2019: Maple Leafs led the Boston Bruins 2–1 after Game 3.
2021: Maple Leafs led the Montreal Canadiens 2–1 after Game 3.
2022: Maple Leafs led the Tampa Bay Lightning 2–1 after Game 3.
2023: Maple Leafs LEAD the Tampa Bay Lightning 2–1 after Game 3.
Have you noticed a pattern? And, do you remember the results?
In each example, the Toronto Maple Leafs promised — with premature endorsement from the local media — they were a “different team” from the previous year. Only to prove, agonizingly, the calendar was all that changed.
So, we sit here, today, with the Leafs again holding an edge after three games of a best–of–seven opening round. Amid innumerable hints, within and abroad, that this version is “different” from the others. I therefore wonder: Have we cried wolf long enough to temper anticipation? Or, is the 2023 edition of the Maple Leafs finally the real deal? We will know, of course, as soon as Thursday night and as late as next Monday. In the meantime, we ponder if Tampa Bay will sustain enough personnel for whatever is left of this Stanley Cup rematch. As of now, the Maple Leafs — marshmallow–soft for so many playoff years — are systematically eliminating their opponent.
We can make an easy argument that Victor Hedman, Erik Cernak and Brayden Point are the three most–critical members of the Lightning not named Andrei Vasilevskiy. Something happened to Hedman in the early minutes of Game 2 that forced him into street clothes for five consecutive periods (he returned for Game 3). Cernak, among the largest and best shut–down defensemen in the National Hockey League, is still seeing planets and stars after Michael Bunting’s elbow to the snout in the opener. And, Point, who scored a career–best 51 goals in the regular season, will likely dress for Game 4 in much bodily discomfort courtesy of Morgan Rielly’s slam into the turnbuckle (wrestling lingo) on Saturday night. Neither is there anything fluky about these harrowing injuries. They are being inflicted, mercilessly, by the oft–placid Atlantic rival — hardly an expectation of the fancy pants from the north.
MORGAN RIELLY AND AUSTON MATTHEWS EXULT AFTER RIELLY SCORED WITH 45 SECONDS LEFT IN THE FIRST OVERTIME PERIOD ON SATURDAY IN TAMPA, LIFTING THE LEAFS OVER THE LIGHTNING.
CHRIS O’MEARA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
As such, it is not at all difficult to speculate whether Tampa Bay — in spite of its wide territorial edge in Game 3 — is healthy enough, where it most matters, to see this series through. Cernak’s loss cannot be overstated… and if Point steps onto the ice at Amalie Arena tomorrow wrapped like a mummy, the Leafs should be in a strong position to grab a 3–1 stranglehold and back the Lightning into an elimination game on Thursday. From all appearances, there are no significant maladies in the Toronto dressing room. The big–money men up front are generating points while Irish Eyes are Smiling in the persons of Rielly and O’Reilly. It was said, prior to the series, that the Leafs No. 1 blueline tandem would be comprised of Jake McCabe and T.J. Brodie, with Morgan Rielly relegated to a secondary role. In fact, the club’s highest–paid defenseman has evolved into a monster, with his four assists in Game 2… then his Point–pounder and overtime winning goal on Saturday night. We’re not talking Scott Stevens or Chris Pronger here; ol’ Morgan is way too nice for such comparisons, even if so locked in at the moment that he cannot comprehend how his dasher–basher with Brayden could be a turning Point in the series. As for Ryan O’Reilly… well, he’s done this before, and amid higher stakes, while leading St. Louis to its lone Stanley Cup title four years ago. Check the Conn Smythe Trophy and you’ll find his name engraved next to the year 2019. Whether he can remain beastly, again, through four playoff rounds is a mystery, but O’Reilly is providing the Maple Leafs — to begin the Cup tournament — all they anticipated when acquiring him from the Blues before the trade deadline.
Plaudits notwithstanding, it would hardly be advisable for the Leafs to lollygag as they did after the first period on Saturday. Every Stanley Cup team needs a goalie to pilfer a game or two along the way, as did Ilya Samsonov in the third match. Neither is it plausible to consider that Vasilevskiy will continue to scuffle, even if the Maple Leafs, inexplicably, bring out the worst in the future Hall–of–Fame stopper. At any juncture of this playoff round — as with so many in the past three years — Andrei the Great could begin to lock down the Tampa twine. Which is likely to happen the longer the series progresses… and the reason I strongly suggested the Leafs finish off the Lightning in five matches; still a possibility heading into Game 4. Nothing about that recommendation has withered.
LEAFS ACTING SILLY: Samsonov, despite English being his second language, was among the most–personable of all Leaf players during his first year with the team. The media loved him for his quick wit and honesty. And, he appeared to enjoy his moments in front of the camera. All of a sudden, in the playoffs, Samsonov is no longer available to those covering the team. It’s difficult to imagine this emanating from the player. Rather, it sounds like another silly ploy and control tactic from above… being carried out by director of media relations Steve Keogh. This has long been how the Leafs assert themselves on the media, and the public. Perhaps they could give Martin Brodeur a quick call. The three–time Stanley Cup winner with New Jersey made himself available endlessly to reporters in all situations, including day of game skates during the Stanley Cup final. He was the ultimate pro.
BEWARE OF THE BEAR
Oh, for shame, the innumerable pundits that suggested the Boston Bruins were “in trouble” after collapsing against Florida in the third period of Game 2. Even if it happened so uncharacteristically… and on home ice. What amounted to wishful thinking in these parts — if the Maple Leafs finally prevail in a playoff series for the first time since 2004, their “prize” will be the 65–win Beantowners — has nearly been forgotten throughout the NHL. While skating without two of their key components, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, the Bruins dismantled Florida in consecutive road encounters this weekend. Only by lifting their foot off the pedal, which the Bruins did so rarely throughout their historic 135–point season, will the Panthers extend this Eastern playoff round to a sixth match.
Florida faces elimination in Game 5 at the TD Garden on Wednesday night.
SMILIN’ JACK AND ZACH — AFTER YOU HIT THE SACK… It occurred early this morning, Eastern time, in southern California and had a decidedly Maple Leafs flavor. The Edmonton Oilers saved their season by rebounding from a 3–0 deficit in the first period to stun the Los Angeles Kings, 5–4, on a goal by Zach Hyman at 10:39 of overtime. Rather than Edmonton falling into a 3–1 series deficit, the best–of–seven Western clash is even at 2–2, returning to Alberta for Game 5 on Tuesday. The other hero for the Oilers was Jack Campbell, who replaced Stuart Skinner in net after L.A.’s eruption in the opening frame. It was Smilin’ Jack’s first playoff appearance for Edmonton. He stopped 27 shots, including a breakaway by Viktor Arvidsson with 5:48 remaining in regulation and the Kings ahead, 4–3. Evander Kane knotted the score at 16:58 of the third, paving the way for Hyman’s winner.
What a wonderful piece of memorabilia this would be. The 1967 Toronto Stanley Cup team, autographed by 12 players, six of whom are no longer alive. From bottom–left to bottom–right: Johnny Bower*, Ron Ellis, Peter Stemkowski, Larry Hillman*, Red Kelly*, Brian Conacher, Bob Pulford, Jim Pappin*, Eddie Shack*, Larry Jeffrey*, Bobby Baun, Mike Walton. *Deceased