The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won a Game 7, Pat Quinn did the temperature check beforehand.
“Game 7s are filled with clichés that are truisms,” said the last Leafs coach who earned his salary. “It’s mistakes. It’s guys doing things that winners do and losers don’t.”
Back in 2004, it was the Leafs who came armed with a psychological bazooka. They’d ridden their first-round opponent, the Ottawa Senators, like a rented mule going back years.
It was a tight series between two good teams. Ottawa was a comer, while Toronto was nearing the end of another failed generation. It probably should have been a moment to transition from one minor regime to the next.
But the deciding game was over after the first period. The goat in this instance was Sens goalie Patrick Lalime. Remember when players not wearing blue-and-white were allowed to be Game 7 goats? No, me neither.
Lalime allowed three goals in the opening frame. A couple were so soft you’d like to lie down on them and have a nap. We’re talking shots you – yes, you – could have stopped. That was it for Ottawa (and, shortly thereafter, Lalime in Ottawa).
Afterward, the Leafs players all said the same things about “character” and that’s a great team over there, but Quinn got it right beforehand.
It comes down to the things winners do and losers don’t, and we’re not talking here about getting pucks in deep. It’s what happens when you expect things to go wrong because they have always done so, and how that belief becomes infectious.
You think Lalime let in those goals because he was bad at hockey? He played in the NHL a dozen years. It’s not as though someone made a clerical error and kept putting his name on the duty roster. In his day, Lalime was a great goalie.
He let in those goals because he was thinking so hard about not letting in any bad goals. He was worried about being the guy who let everyone down and – whammo! – he let everyone down.
This is one instance in which average schmucks know what it’s like to be a pro, because we can all put ourselves in that situation. Don’t think about pink elephants. Now imagine 20,000 people yelling at you while you try not to think about pink elephants.
Think of the Leafs right now as a whole bunch of Patrick Lalimes.
Game 7 in the Leafs’ first-round playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning is Saturday in Toronto.
Seventeen years of consistent failure isn’t a talent problem. The churn of the NHL’s player-acquisition system ensures that bad teams get good players. The Leafs have had plenty of them. They may never have had more than they have right now.
Talent doesn’t help you right now, because while you know you’re talented, you also know you have a tendency to blow it. Once you get stuck trying to figure out why you’re so good in November and so error-prone in May, you’re already focused on the wrong thing. Then you start thinking about not being the Lalime of Saturday night. How it’s okay to lose, but not if it’s your fault. Now you’re in a full spiral.
Leafs defenceman Justin Holl has been the focus of thousands of volunteer talent assessments, few of them kind, over the past week. What do you think he’s thinking right now? Some version of ‘Please, God, just don’t let it be me.’ To do otherwise would not be human.
You can’t be coached out of this problem because the more the coach says, ‘Try to relax,’ the less relaxed you feel.
There’s no solvable issue here. There’s no little tweak that’s going to make things better. It’s not a goalie problem, a line problem, an executive problem, a fan problem or a media problem. It’s not even a Tampa Bay problem. It’s a history problem.
If we approach every new experience with thoughts and feelings informed by previous similar encounters, then some small part of every Leaf must know they are doomed.
It may not turn out that way. But you cannot convince me they aren’t thinking it.
Another thing they must be thinking about – how bad does it get if they lose again?
The worst thing for the Leafs as a whole would be to lose and do nothing. It’s not like the Atlantic Division is getting easier. The same players will have the same history problem next year.
But if you’re a guy in that room, you don’t want to be shipped out either. Then you’re another one of those players who couldn’t cope in Toronto. What does that say about you?
And what if the coach gets the chop? Where does that leave you? Or the GM? How quickly could this fire spread?
If you’re thinking that, you’re already off on a frolic of your own. You’re in the wrong headspace, my friend.
No one on the Lightning is thinking anything like that. They are free of history. Two Stanley Cups has that effect.
They’re thinking, ‘What time’s the bus to the arena?’ Because however this turns out, everyone on Tampa is going to be fine. Even if they lose, they’re still winners.
If the Leafs have any small psychological edge, it’s that. That the Lightning don’t need to win, and the Leafs very much do. Or maybe that’s a disadvantage. Or maybe you shouldn’t be thinking about that either because it doesn’t help.
We already know how this is going to go – someone is going to make that mistake Quinn talked about, and it’s going to follow them around like tin cans on a string for the rest of their career.
If it’s someone in Tampa white, few people outside the affected parties will hang on to it. But if it’s someone in Toronto blue, it becomes another sad chapter in the local Book of Hockey Complaints.
But don’t let your mind drift to that horrible possibility. We keep telling you – the trick is not thinking about it.