The Maple Leafs have clawed back into their first-round series with the Boston Bruins, but an inexperienced Toronto team will need to draw from those who have been in this situation before.
When it comes to Game 7 experience, nobody on the Toronto Maple Leafs has more than their $50-million coach. And when it comes to performing in Game 7, nobody has more to prove than their goaltender. And on a team that has this many players who have never seen this situation before, both their contributions will be enormous.
For coach Mike Babcock, preparing his team for a Game 7 has become almost old hat. But that’s not to say that he’s mastered the art, since his Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Detroit Red Wings teams went a combined 3-5 in ultimate elimination games. The way this series has gone, there is no telling how things will unfold on Wednesday night in Boston, but after watching his team climb back into this series after going down 2-0 and 3-1, Babcock said this will be an experience his players will not forget.
“They have high-end players, but we think we’re going to win,” said Babcock after watching his team defeat the Bruins 3-1 in Game 6. “We’ve thought that all along. We’ve crawled our way back and now we have the opportunity of a lifetime. This is fun, this is where we want to be. You want to be in these moments in your life. You don’t remember everything in your life, but you do remember moments. And you want to create those moments, create memories. Here’s an opportunity for us to create memories.”
The Leafs will create memories regardless of what happens in Game 7. And even if they lose and are sent packing in the first round for the second straight season, they will have endured a Game 7 situation, something that will help them the next time they face it. Of the 20 players the Maple Leafs dressed on Monday night, 11 of them have never been involved in this situation. (That number includes Tyler Bozak, who was a member of the 2013 Maple Leafs, but did not play in Game 7, along with backup goalie Curtis McElhinney.)
“Enjoying it…to me that’s the biggest thing,” Babcock said. “Living in the present and enjoying the moment. You’re going to be ready. Don’t spend the whole day (Tuesday) and the next day getting wound up. Just relax and get ready for one shift. And when you’re on the bench, get ready for the next one. You’ll be fine. These are the growing moments in your life as a player and you want to take advantage of them.”
As for Andersen, who has been brilliant in the past two games and is the single biggest reason the Leafs have reached Game 7 in the first place, this situation has not been terribly kind to him. He’s been in two Game 7 scenarios – in 2016 in the first round against Nashville and in 2015 in the Western Conference final against Chicago. He lost both of those games and allowed seven goals on 39 shots for an .848 save percentage. His counterparts – Pekka Rinne and Corey Crawford – stopped 71 of 75 shots for a .947 save percentage.
“I think it’s the same kind of pressure we’ve had these last two games where we’re facing elimination and I think Game 7 should be the same,” Andersen said. “It’s just something you all dream of, playing in those big moments. You also want to perform, obviously.”
Babcock is impressed at how his goaltender has dug himself out of his predicament after allowing eight goals in the first two games and posting a save percentage of just .822. “I’ve never been a goalie, but when you can’t get hit, it’s got to be tough for a goalie,” Babcock said. “And it’s a lot more fun when you’re in there and you keep getting hit.”
And of course, there’s some history to deal with here. Five years ago, the Maple Leafs went into Boston in these exact circumstances and built up a 4-1 lead in the third period, only to collapse and suffer one of the most demoralizing playoff losses in franchise history. James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov and Jake Gardiner all played in that game and will have waited 2,142 days to have the chance to exorcise that ghost in their careers.
This is not the same team, not even close. The Leafs are likely going to be outplayed in Game 7. The chances for and against will almost certainly be tilted heavily in favor of the Bruins, as they have been throughout most of this series. But if this Maple Leafs team has proved one thing, it’s that it doesn’t need many opportunities to bury its opponents.
And one thing about that 2013 series, the Bruins were playing for a city that was in mourning. Less than a month before that game, two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds of others. This time, it is the Maple Leafs who will be playing for the memory of others, after a van plowed into a multitude of pedestrians at a busy intersection in Toronto Monday afternoon, killing 10 people and injuring 15 others.
There is nothing any hockey team can do to undo what has done, but it can play with pride and help in a small way ease the pain of some of those who are suffering. “We have a fantastic city and we can’t let this get in the way of what we’ve got going,” Babcock said. (Just to be clear, Babcock was speaking of what Toronto has going as a city, not what his team has going.) “The bottom line is it was our job to do what we could to do our job tonight.”
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