Pressure is dolled out in droves in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning shoulder quite the brunt of it given how their regular season played out. Teams such as the Winnipeg Jets put it together a year prior and the expectation is to push the needle further this time around.
And then there’s the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Toronto is a hockey market like no other. Essentially, the team could be in the same position at the Ottawa Senators and they’d be expected to hold a parade in late June. Yeah, that’s probably a little extreme but it paints a good enough picture of the pressure cooker that exists in southern Ontario.
And when you have the names of Tavares, Matthews and Marner on the backs of those iconic jerseys, expectations are firmly (and rightly so) place in the lofty stratosphere. Losing to the Boston Bruins in the Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, then, would be nothing short of a disappointment (and Boston is, in many people’s eyes, the better team).
Toronto has fallen to the Bruins twice now in spectacular, Game 7 fashion since 2013. In 2013, the Maple Leafs held a 4-1 lead in the third period before the Bruins came back to tie the game in regulation and then win through Patrice Bergeron in overtime.
Last season, a similar fate awaited Toronto. The Maple Leafs led 4-3 after two periods in Game 7, only to cough up another three third-period markers to lose 7-4. At its very core, this series is about Toronto showing they can exorcize these Game 7 demons, in the same way that the Washington Capitals finally beat the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.
“Everyone on this team is going into it very hungry,” Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews said Monday. “We want to make up for last year where we felt it could have gone either way in that last game. To not move [on] was really frustrating and left a bitter taste in a lot of our mouths.”
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Not moving on might cost Mike Babcock his job. Toronto oozes talent, and Babcock needs it to seep into the later rounds of the playoffs.
“The biggest thing is there is going to be no room, no space, no time and the better a player you are, the less there is going to be,” Babcock said. “You have to understand what the playoffs are about and what it’s going to take to be successful and our whole team has to.”
Moving on from last year will also be top of the order for defenseman Jake Gardiner.
Plus-minus is going the way of the dinosaurs, but a minus-5 in Game 7 will always look ugly. Gardiner had that minus-5 in last year’s most important game.
Gardiner was, unsurprisingly, harsh on himself after that game.
“It’s the most important game of the season, and I didn’t show up,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough one to swallow, that’s for sure. I let a lot of people down. But you know what, hopefully, I can come back better from it.”
Gardiner became the team’s goat, and not the good goat. But Toronto got a taste of what life was without him this season and, well, they’re much better with him with a record 37-20-5 and 2.85 goals allowed per game compared to the 9-8-3 record with 3.6 goals allowed per game without.
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Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck