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These Maple Leafs Seem Different - Now They Have To Prove It

The Toronto Maple Leafs sit in the same position they have for the past five years. Now it's time for them to create a happier ending.
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If the Maple Leafs were a television show, you'd accuse them of lazy writing. 

Another year. Another blown opportunity to slam the door on their opponent. Another Game 7. 

Are we really doing this again? 

We sure are, folks. You knew it had to be this way. Dread it. Run from it. Game 7 arrives all the same. 

The Maple Leafs find themselves staring down the barrel of yet another do-or-die grudge match on Saturday night, with the fate of their season, the future of their core players, and possibly even the jobs of the team's management group hanging in the balance. 

You wouldn't know it just by watching Saturday's morning skate, though. 

There was an understated steadiness radiating from the Maple Leafs as they went about business for what could be the final time this season. The sense in the building was one of levity. The players hooted and hollered as they passed pucks back and forth to warm up before breaking into their usual line rushes, identical to those of Games 5 and 6, serenading goaltender Jack Campbell with "Souuuuuuuuup" chants whenever he happened to make a save, just as the Scotiabank Arena faithful do game in and game out. 

Confidence seems to be the prevailing theme throughout this squad as they prepare for an era-defining contest against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. It's a departure from otherwise identical circumstances from years past, when the Leafs would believe themselves as merely lucky to have made it this far and let the moment overtake them. 

These Maple Leafs know they belong, it seems, having pushed the NHL's closest thing to a dynasty to the brink of elimination, going the distance with a team that hasn't tasted defeat since before social distancing was a well-known phrase. 

The Maple Leafs have earned this moment. And they seem more ready than ever to take it for themselves. 

"This is as confident as I've ever been coaching this team," Sheldon Keefe told reporters later in the morning. 

"The mood is great. I don't sense any nerves. I just sense confidence and excitement." 

Whereas Leafs teams of the past would typically approach Game 7s with a sense of dread, this current iteration appears almost giddy for the opportunity, one that offers a shot at redemption for every toxic narrative that has followed them around for their entire careers. 

"I think there's always going to be nerves," admitted Mitch Marner, the Leaf whose demons are perhaps the largest heading into tonight's bout after last year's postseason failure. 

"It's just embracing it and being excited for the opportunity. We earned home-ice advantage. We earned to be at home for this game. We're going to have a great fanbase behind us tonight. So, we've just got to make sure we're excited for that moment and take it on head-on"

To Marner, and the rest of the team, this moment has not been thrust upon the Maple Leafs. They don't just belong in it. They've achieved it through an entire season of franchise records and statement performances, instilling within them that oft-mentioned confidence to believe they truly can slay the demons that lie before them. 

Keefe shares that sentiment. Perhaps more so than anyone. 

"The confidence is earned," explained Keefe, building to a soliloquy on the journey that has landed his team here today. 

"Part of it's through the whole season. We were right at the top of the league. We established home ice in a very difficult division. Edged out this opponent, in that regard, for home ice. And through this series, both teams have been going toe-to-toe with each other here. Both teams have knocked the other on their ass a little bit; both teams have picked themselves up and continued to go at it" 

"We've been right there with the back-to-back champs. And our guys have grown a ton of confidence in knowing that they belong in this moment and they're excited to go"

This story could ultimately have the same ending it always does, of course. The Maple Leafs could hit the ice in front of a raucous and undyingly loyal crowd, wilt under the pressure, and fumble away their chance at redemption, thereby thrusting the entire bedrock of the franchise into an offseason of complete uncertainty. 

But it just doesn't seem like they will. You can't quite explain it, but there's something different in the air at Scotiabank Arena right now -- something that definitely wasn't there before. 

A hint of belief, maybe. A hint of pride. 

Call me crazy. But it's a feeling I just can't quite shake. 

Of course, this is all conjecture. The real test begins when the puck drops. And these players know it, being well aware of the stakes that come with tonight. But instead of turning that pressure into the anchor that weighs them down, as they have done before, these Leafs appear to be harvesting it, using it as fuel. And why shouldn't they? They've proven they belong.  

"I feel like it's a Game 7 tonight," stated William Nylander, master of the obvious. 

"We've played in a couple and by now, we know how it feels"

Now it's time to spin a happier ending. 

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