Pressure Is All On The Maple Leafs

TORONTO (May 1) — Oh, they tried, desperately, in the supper hour tonight: Mark Masters, Glen Schiller, Bryan Hayes, Bruce Boudreau and the other talking heads on Leafs–owned TSN claiming the pressure in the Toronto–Boston playoff series has shifted to the Bruins after a Game 5 overtime loss at home on Tuesday.

Don’t buy it. There is virtually no basis for that assertion.

How can the Bruins feel more onus than the Leafs when they have two remaining chances to win the series? If Toronto loses Game 6 on Thursday, the longest–ever Stanley Cup drought grows to 57 years. It will be Boston vs. Florida in the Eastern Conference semifinals. If Boston loses Game 6, there is the notable cushion of Game 7, Saturday, on home ice. Do any of the otherwise–excellent pundits on Canada’s oldest sports TV network actually believe that a club facing elimination is less–encumbered than an opponent guaranteed at least one more game? That doesn’t make sense… be it the Leafs and Bruins or your high school volleyball team. I’m not suggesting the claim emerged from deep–left field; yes, the Bruins, after a record 65–win season, were shocked and humiliated when they blew a 3–1 series advantage, last spring, to Florida. In 2018, for whatever it’s worth, the Leafs clawed out of a similar hole with consecutive road/home triumphs, necessitating a winner–take–all match at TD Garden.

So, sure, coughing up the aforementioned leads is a lingering notion for the Boston charges; they, too, are human. But, let’s remember, this is a largely poised and playoff–hardened rival the Maple Leafs are encountering — having appeared in the Stanley Cup final as recently as 2019. Current Bruins Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo were all members of that club, which lost to St. Louis in the title round. And, yes, at the Garden — the same place Florida kayoed the Bruins last spring. It would be the site of a decisive clash in this series. At which point, sure, the Bruins would be quite jittery. But, not yet. Not after owning the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena in Games 3 and 4; not with Toronto posting a sickly 1–7 record in its past eight playoff matches on Bay St. How can the Leafs not assume the bulk of pressure in Game 6 while wearing that Albatross.

We know, for certain, that Boston carries fewer Stanley Cup skeletons into the latter part of this series. Let’s not forget the Maple Leafs — even with their Big 3 draft picks (William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews) — have a mere single playoff–round triumph in the salary cap era (post–2005). That victory, in the first series against Tampa Bay last year, ended a two–decades–long playoff famine for the Blue and White. And, that’s all it did after the Leafs were handed their heads by Florida in the ensuing round. With such limited prosperity to call upon in the Stanley Cup tournament, how could the Leafs, in any observer’s mind, encounter less of a burden than the Bruins going into Game 6? Again, there’s no merit to such an argument. It is nothing shy of partisan, wishful thinking.

Now, if you’re a Leafs rooter looking for an omen or two, perhaps the Bruins are in trouble.

This small portion of the calendar has offered up some unforgettable moments for the Blue and White. Thursday is May 2, the 57th (and excruciatingly familiar) anniversary of Toronto’s last Stanley Cup triumph (in 1967). It was on May 1 in 1993 that Nikolai Borschevsky scored in overtime of Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena, lifting the underdog Leafs past the Detroit Red Wings. Then, only two nights later (May 3), Doug Gilmour scored his famous, dipsy doodle backhand wraparound on Curtis Joseph at Maple Leaf Gardens, allowing the Leafs, in double–OT, to win the opener of the next series over St. Louis (Cujo faced more than 60 shots). May 2 was also a grandiose occasion for the Leafs in 1999. Thursday, in fact, marks the 25th anniversary of the night Sergei Berezin scored on the powerplay in Game 6 at Philadelphia in the final minute of regulation, lifting the Leafs past the Flyers at the First Union Center and into the ensuing round against Pittsburgh. I will never forget the smoldering anger of Philly owner Ed Snider in the dressing room afterward… and how he erupted against referee Terry Gregson when I asked for a comment. Gregson had penalized John LeClair of the Flyers, allowing for Berezin’s late, powerplay winner. I covered the Borschevsky–Gilmour–Berezin games for The FAN–590 and can hardly comprehend, while writing this blog, how much time has whizzed by since those events. Even if they provide wondrous memories.

As for the moment, I would encourage Leaf fans to temper their enthusiasm. Though the law of averages suggests the Leafs will win a home playoff game at some point, the club has been singularly dreadful at Scotiabank Arena in the post–pandemic era. Just prior to COVID, the Leafs (in 2019) carried a 3–2 series lead over Boston into Game 6 at SBA: a matinee televised nationally by Sportsnet here in Canada and the full NBC network in the United States. With the city in an uproar over finally winning a playoff series, the boys in blue laid the first of many eggs at Bay and Lakeshore. The Bruins prevailed, 4–2, and clobbered the Leafs at home in Game 7. Boston, Columbus, Montreal, Tampa Bay and Florida have all silenced Scotiabank Arena in recent playoff years. Other than the law of averages, there’s no reason to conclude that Boston will suddenly wither in Toronto’s lair. The Bruins perform positively well at SBA; the Leafs, not so much. I suspect, therefore, the locals will be squeezing their sticks a bit tighter in Game 6, especially if the Bruins score early and dampen the raucous environment.

The overt yearning for Matthews has subsided since the determined, Game 5 victory in his absence.

It’s uncanny how well the Leafs have performed through the years with Matthews or Morgan Rielly out of the line–up. If Matthews is still ailing on Thursday, I would not allow him to consume a roster spot. Toronto is a remarkable 36–19–12, all time, in games without No. 34. And, Auston has been scoring at a nine–goal regular–season pace since the end of the Tampa series last year. If he’s feeling peppy, get him out there. Which I think will probably happen. Otherwise, allow his fellow Leafs to compensate for their leading scorer, as they did with abundant energy and resolve on Saturday night. As in last year’s playoffs, Joseph Woll has usurped the No. 1 goalie’s position from Ilya Samsonov and it was Woll, as much as Matthew Knies, that enabled the Leafs to avoid elimination at TD Garden. That said, we still haven’t seen enough of the “China Woll” when it most matters to contend he will now backstop the Maple Leafs to a near–historic rebound against Boston. Overcoming a 3–1 series shortfall has occurred only once for the Blue and White — 82 years ago — in the Stanley Cup final of 1942 against Detroit.

My gut tells me that Pastrnak and Marchand will typically water–drip torture the Buds and their fans.

I chose Boston in six prior to the series and I’m not changing that forecast.

Even with Masters, Schiller, Hayes and Boudreau twisting my arm on TV earlier tonight.


2 comments on “Pressure Is All On The Maple Leafs

  1. Howard, your analysis is loaded with common sense which unfortunately escapes the scribes following the team. In what world is the pressure on the Bruins? Leafs have proven time and time again that they cannot get it done against the Bruins. The players cannot handle the pressure in their barn. Unless Boston’s goalies implode, it’s over tonight.

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