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Playoff-cursed Leafs in 'right head space' for Game 7

Toronto Sun logo Toronto Sun 2022-05-13 Lance Hornby
Colin Blackwell of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks to pass in the third period during Game Five of the First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on May 12, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. © Provided by Toronto Sun Colin Blackwell of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks to pass in the third period during Game Five of the First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on May 12, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.

The Maple Leafs feel they’ve lived a non-fiction adventure novel this year and that Game 7 will be its most exciting chapter, not the final word.

The entirety of 2021-22 has been overcoming conflict and crisis of some type, starting with picking up the pieces from an upset playoff loss to Montreal, which created more heavy baggage into October as part of five first-round losses.

Then they struggled early and saw COVID-19 cause two major disruptions, a team outbreak trapping most of the players and staff in Western Canada just before Christmas and the mid-season NHL pause that hampered their momentum.

Mitch Marner and Jack Campbell, two of their biggest names, were right out of the picture for a few weeks through injuries and slumps, general manager Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe were back getting slagged at times and self-inflicted wounds took the team out of first place contention and forced a series against the Cup champion Lightning.

Yet they ended the year as the Atlantic Division’s second-best team,  with franchise records for wins, points and individuals up for many honours.

After the two most recent games in this series when down two goals, they came back to win one and lose the other in overtime. So, they’ll take a Game 7 at Scotiabank, thank you very much.

“The feeling on our team is one of great confidence,” Keefe insisted Friday. “The things we did all season long to compete in such a difficult division, to have home ice in a series like this, the reaction and boost we’ve had from our fans, all those things combined with the grit and perseverance we’ve shown the past two games, I just feel this team has lots of fight.

“All the work we’ve put in has prepared us. Because of that, Game 7 happens to be in Toronto.”

Bay Street gives Keefe two big advantages, the last chance to strategize faceoffs involving centres Auston Matthews and John Tavares, the matches he wants on defence and crowd noise that could influence a penalty call or two on the Lightning.

Of course, home ice did nothing for them in their last Game 7, when they resembled zombies in a 3-1 defeat to cap the Habs’ upset, the seventh of eight times they’ve failed a playoff elimination test since 2018.

Those ghosts could descend from the SBA rafters again, but Keefe and his players will argue these past two weeks are evidence of a new, improved Leafs’ culture.

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“I really look at the two situations as far different,” Keefe said. “Going into the last Game 7 and (losing Game 5) in the Columbus series, you were on a bit of a downer because you’d failed to get it done. Last night we lose in overtime, similar to (Game 6) in Montreal. But it’s just the manner in which we’ve played, the calibre of our opponent, how hard they’ve pushed us and how we’ve handled that.

“Our team this season is uniquely different. Our top players are executing at critical times (Matthews, Marner and Campbell and in Game 6, Tavares) and playing well as a group. To go toe-to-toe with the back-to-back champions … the opponent doesn’t make it easier, but we’re not uncomfortable going into this.”

After Thursday’s loss in which his goal had keyed a second-period rally and he led the Leafs in ice time by forwards, shots, hits and faceoff wins, Matthews declared the team should “put our balls on the line and go for it” as a Game 7 plan.

Crude, but Keefe said “that’s the perfect way to describe it. It requires being all-in, there’s nothing to save it for. We believe in our team, they believe in theirs (coach Jon Cooper credits his team with not being content as two-time champs). There’s nothing much separating us through this series, so it’s fitting it’s a Game 7 to finish.

“We’re in the right headspace in front of our fans.”

The Leafs who were made available Friday were trying to sound upbeat after Game 6.

“That’s playoffs, there will be ups and downs along the way,” defenceman Mark Giordano said. “When we get out there and on our game, we’re good enough to beat anybody. It’s tough right after a game like (Thursday). But you wake up, it’s a new day and tomorrow we’ll be back home. I’m looking forward to playing in that game.”


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