Skip to main content

Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Amalie Arena in Tampa on May 12.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It is not that the Maple Leafs aren’t good enough. At this point, that much is clear. Through six playoff games they have fought the Stanley Cup champions to a tie.

They came within 10 minutes of beating the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday and nearly swept away so many bad memories.

Those oft-victimized fans back in Toronto would have been joyous again. If not forgotten, failures of the past would be forgiven.

Of course, there is a but here. Tampa Bay rallied in the third period and won 4-3 nearly 19 minutes into overtime so here we are in Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.

This should be a good thing. The Maple Leafs put together their best regular season in 100 years and have the home-ice advantage in what feels like the franchise’s most important game in memory. They will have a din-splitting crowd. And if Saturday’s encounter follows what has happened to this point – each team has traded wins – it is Toronto’s turn.

Isn’t it finally the Maple Leafs’ turn? Please?

So why is this moment cloaked in anxiety like the humidity that has a bear hug on Tampa during summer?

Well, let’s just do a little review.

Toronto hasn’t won a postseason round in 18 years and has blown eight chances to close out opponents in the first round since 2018.

The last time it clinched a playoff-round series was on April 20, 2004 against the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals. The Maple Leafs lost in the next round to the Philadelphia Flyers and have been bedevilled since then.

In recent years they have had the bad luck to run up against good teams – Tampa Bay and Boston, three times – and have also wilted like a lily a week after Easter. Their losses to Columbus and especially Montreal last year were bad, even for them.

John Tavares got hurt in Game 1 against the Canadiens last year, so there was that. The referees have been calling an unusual amount of penalties this year but with the exception of a couple they were infractions.

The referees aren’t against Toronto and neither is another favourite scapegoat in Gary Bettman. Heck, the NHL commissioner set up a whole Canadian division last season that appeared to be designed to help the Maple Leafs go on a long postseason run.

After trailing the series 3-2, the Lightning still has a chance to become the first team in 40 years to win three successive Stanley Cups. It is a battle-hardened team.

Toronto certainly does not lack playoff experience. What it lacks is playoff success. The ability to shake off the bad breaks because it has before and knows it will again.

Tampa Bay entered Thursday 17-0 in games after a loss over the past three postseasons, the longest-such streak in NHL playoff history. And it won again.

Saturday’s winner advances to the second round against the winner of the series between the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals. Florida led 3-2 as it headed into Game 6 in Sunrise on Friday.

The Maple Leafs have shown more mettle in this round than the past two for sure. They have pushed back and have not looked out of place.

It has been a series defined by a few big moments and a lot of mistakes on each side.

“It has kind of been punch-counterpunch,” said Auston Matthews, Toronto’s superstar centre. He has been in the league for six years and is still looking for his first playoff series win.

There is not a lot of blame to go around actually. Mitch Marner, who has faded like a mirage in the past, has played well.

Matthews has four goals and put in a gargantuan effort on Thursday. He played more than 28 minutes, scored a goal, went 19-10 in faceoffs and was credited with nine hits.

That is a team’s best player being just that.

Jack Campbell hasn’t been perfect but he has matched Tampa Bay’s great goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

It has been exciting and what one would hope for in the opening round of the Stanley Cup. There can only be one winner, though, and that is something Toronto hasn’t experienced in 18 years.

“All the work we have put into getting to this series gave us a chance to win,” Sheldon Keefe, the head coach, said before the team boarded its flight for Toronto. “This team has a lot of fight in it and we are certainly confident going into Game 7.

“It will require an all-in effort. There hasn’t been much to separate the two teams. It is fitting that the series will go to seven.”

“We are good enough to beat anybody,” said Mark Giordano, the Maple Leafs defenceman.

It looks that way. But will they do it against Tampa Bay?