TORONTO – They have given you so many reasons to believe that this time will be different and yet here the Toronto Maple Leafs sit within view of the ledge.
After 80 games and 177 days, there is still a score to be settled. A game to be won.
Perhaps we should not expect this organization to happen upon a serene lake after spending a decade wandering through the desert. The Leafs have no knack for making things easy, and getting into the playoffs during a rebuild is hard.
“It’s a long-term goal, it takes a lot of work, a lot of hard nights sometimes, a few disappointments,” said veteran Brian Boyle. “You get to this opportunity, you’ve done so many good things you better believe in yourself. And I think we do.”
We shall find out for certain in the test of nerves that is back-to-back visits by Pittsburgh and Columbus. There is technically nothing for either opponent to play for, but the Penguins are in here for Hockey Night in Canada and the Blue Jackets are two weeks removed from a one-sided loss to Toronto.
Those games could have been academic with a victory over Tampa on Thursday night. All that was required for a second post-season berth since 2004 was another two points. But the Lightning were desperate, and more determined, and skated out of here with a 4-1 victory.
“I think there’s a certain compete level that at this time of the year gets ratcheted up,” said Leafs defenceman Matt Hunwick. “We have room to breathe, but not too much. We’ll need to elevate our play.
“Come playoff time, if we do make it, I think everyone will find out just how competitive and how driven you have to be to compete at that time of year.”
The level should be even clearer now.
Tampa was organized and crisp. It won the special teams battle. The Lightning also made a point of making life tough on Auston Matthews, with Jake Dotchin sending the Leafs top forward hobbling to the bench courtesy a knee-on-knee hit and Braydon Coburn pitchforking him into the Lightning goal.
It felt like a playoff preview even though only one of these teams, at most, will actually still have games to play once the tournament gets underway next week.
“We made it way harder than it should be,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “We didn’t play like we normally do. I thought we were slow. I don’t know if we were tight or what we were, but we weren’t in sync and they were better than us.
“They won all the battles and all the races.”
Even still, this is not a situation that calls for panic. At least not yet.
The Leafs are automatically in if they gain two points over the final two games. That’s assuming the Lightning and Islanders win both of their remaining games in regulation or overtime – otherwise, it’ll take even less.
There are almost certainly those out there who, looking at back-to-back losses to the Capitals and Lightning, will be saying “this is the same old Leafs.” Falling on their faces when the lights get brightest. We’ve all seen this film before.
Except inside the dressing room, the veterans look around and see three 60-point rookies, a goaltender in Frederik Andersen who is playing well, and a deeper and stronger supporting cast than any of them have ever previously had here.
They see two opportunities to win and get in.
“Everyone’s thinking that way,” said winger Leo Komarov. “Like everyone wants to clinch and everyone wants to be there. But the thing is you just need to live day by day. That’s how we’ve been living it, too.
“We know it’s a battle.”
And so they will look ahead rather than behind. Focus on what can still be won rather than what’s been lost. They are in possession of an opportunity few would have anticipated they’d have in September, October, November and maybe even December.
With the Penguins and a few familiar faces in town – hello Phil Kessel – the Leafs plan to do whatever it takes to get two points.
“I think the players would like to be in the playoffs; as much as for the fans as for themselves,” said Babcock. “Just being self-serving myself, I’d like to be in the playoffs, too.”
To do it, they need to break the puck out more crisply, spend time wearing down defenders and create more scoring opportunities. Making good on the power play would help, too.
“It doesn’t matter what Pittsburgh does. We’ve got to get ourselves right to play and play like we normally do,” said Babcock. “Don’t let the excitement of the moment or the energy of the moment or what we’re trying to do get in the way of who we are.”
They still have a chance to be a better version of themselves.