Johnston: Leafs ready to move past playoff collapse

The Leafs have to overcome their rough playoff loss from last season.

TORONTO — What happened in Boston four months ago is certainly not a subject David Clarkson needs to look back on or explain.

Yet the Toronto Maple Leafs big free-agent signing thinks he can identify with what his new teammates experienced against the Bruins.

Clarkson watched the Game 7 collapse on television while vacationing in Jamaica and figures that any athlete with a long enough playing career is bound to accumulate some mental scars. He quickly lists off New Jersey’s loss in the 2012 Stanley Cup final and a first-round defeat to Carolina in 2009 as two that stick with him.

The one against the Hurricanes was particularly tough since it saw Carolina score twice in the final 80 seconds of Game 7 to pull out a one-goal victory.

“It was bang-bang and it was over,” Clarkson told during a recent sitdown. “We had them beat. I’ve been through these things and I think all of those guys on the Leafs got a great experience there.

“Any time that you get to a Game 7 or if you haven’t been to the playoffs in a while and you get that berth — all these young guys that are in that room, they all got a sniff of what that was like. And that pushes you more and more.”

With training camp scheduled to open Wednesday morning, the Maple Leafs will set about turning the page on a lockout-shortened season that included plenty of progress but will ultimately be defined for the way it ended.

No NHL team had ever blown a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7 until Toronto did it at TD Garden.

However, there is a school of thought that it might not have been the worst outcome for this group. For one, it’s helped keep expectations relatively low for 2013-14. And as Clarkson alluded to, it should be a source of motivation for those that experienced it.

“It’s the toughest loss that I’ve had in my career,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. “But it’s done and over with now and that’s the bottom line. Last year is last year and there’s 29 teams that aren’t happy about not winning. It’s all part of maturing as a group.

“That’s a tough way to learn it, but we’ve got to learn to bury teams when they’re down.”

It is difficult to pinpoint one specific reason for the loss when watching it again now.

The Leafs were clearly out of gas by the time Patrice Bergeron swept home the winning goal in overtime, but Boston still had to score twice with the goalie pulled just to get the game to that point.

Some of the Bruins players have acknowledged they felt the game was essentially over when Nazem Kadri put Toronto up 4-1 early in the third period. A couple thousand fans actually left the building when that happened.

“I thought ‘Oh my god, this is for real — we better turn the switch at some point otherwise we’re done,”‘ said Bergeron. “There was a little bit of disbelief, but then I didn’t want to believe that it was over. I was like `We can still do it, we have the team to come back. There’s no way we’re going to lose in the first round.”‘

The momentum started to change when Boston’s Nathan Horton made it 4-2 just before the midway point of the period.

Tyler Seguin believes the Leafs clammed up once that happened.

“That’s how hockey is — once you get momentum both teams know it,” said the 21-year-old forward, who was traded to Dallas in July. “I think the Leafs had a much younger team than we did and I think the Leafs are going to be very good. I’ve been in the league three years and comparing my first year to now it’s a whole new team.”

The additions of Clarkson and centre David Bolland were both made with an eye on adding a little more experience and grit to Toronto’s lineup. Both could have been used when everything started to go sideways in Boston.

Goaltender Jonathan Bernier was also acquired in a trade from Los Angeles and appears to have the inside track on stealing the No. 1 job from James Reimer.

Gone are Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin — all of whom played a part in the Game 7 loss — and that’s more than enough turnover for coach Randy Carlyle to believe that his group should have no trouble moving beyond what happened.

“When you get knocked down, you’ve got to pick yourself back up,” said Carlyle. “And we got knocked down, that’s the reality of it. It happened. It can’t affect us the rest of our lives.

“It’s about moving forward.”

That task begins in earnest this week.

Phaneuf and Phil Kessel have both said that they expect the Bruins loss to be discussed at some point during training camp, but neither views it as a potential rallying cry.

And despite the painful nature of the collapse in Boston, the newest Leaf was quick to point out that all hope hasn’t been lost because of it.

“Sometimes things happen in this game that you can’t explain and you can’t put your finger on it, but at the end of the day I think they played hard and made the fans proud,” said Clarkson. “Obviously, it was a hard way to go down but I think everyone’s ready for this season.”

If nothing else, it offers a chance to finally stop talking about how the last one ended.

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