BOSTON – They’ve had a sporting eternity to dream about what it might be like.
So long has it been since the Toronto Maple Leafs went on a true playoff run that some of their players have managed to carve out a respectable career without ever getting to experience one.
Tyler Bozak is at 611 games played as a Maple Leaf, Jake Gardiner 507. Next you have Nazem Kadri at 504 – the only difference between him and Gardiner being the three-game suspension he served during this series with the Boston Bruins – while James van Riemsdyk sits at 425 and Morgan Rielly 400.
None of them has been part of a second-round playoff series in Toronto, and each is a victory away from changing that heading into Wednesday’s Game 7 at TD Garden.
“I think you imagine it during the summer, during the season,” Rielly said Tuesday. “Then you get to this point in the season and you definitely draw from those thoughts and it makes you motivated, makes you want to go in there and play well.
“A big opportunity for a young group to do something special.”
Surely they snicker at this sort of talk in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins have won nine straight series and the last two Stanley Cups. It’s all a matter of perspective. Only two franchises have endured a longer drought than the 14 years since the Leafs last won a best-of-seven – Columbus at 22 years, and Florida at 17.
Consider: There have been 194 different players to pull on a Leafs sweater since a Mats Sundin-led team beat Ottawa in a seven-game series back in 2004.
That list includes some of the core players on the current squad but also names like Spencer Abbott, Erik Westrum, Brayden Irwin, Jamie Devane and Nathan Perrott.
Whether they win or lose against Boston this time around, the times are changing. The Leafs have too much young talent to remain stuck in neutral, but as they’ve climbed out of a 3-1 hole against the Bruins in recent days, coach Mike Babcock has made a concerted effort to remind his young players that they want to gain a reputation as a group that gets it done.
Like right now.
“What’s interesting is you go through, we’re kind of like in the same spot we were last year during the first round [against Washington], and yet our team’s way better than last year,” said Babcock. “We’re still just in the first round though. To show that we’ve taken a step we’d like to win tomorrow.”
The stakes are highest for Bozak, van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov, each a pending unrestricted free agent unlikely to get another contract in Toronto. They can take no comfort in the brighter future to come.
They were part of the Game 7 loss in Boston five years ago and are getting a re-do, of sorts, with a more talented team. The Leafs believe they’ve grown through this series and were proud of the way they protected a 2-1 lead in Game 6 after narrowly holding on during an avalanche of Bruins chances in Game 5.
“When you look down the stretch, I think we made more plays than we did in Game 5, as opposed to putting the puck on the wall,” said Rielly.
“I thought the last 30 minutes were probably among the better that we’ve had all series,” added veteran defenceman Ron Hainsey. “It’s not the only indicator, but I think they had like 21 shots in the first half and we finally settled in, played better in the neutral zone, broke the puck out better and we had some time at least not buried in our end in the second half.”
It has been a series of extremes. After Boston’s top line exploded for 20 combined points in the opening two games, they’ve managed just three in the four games since.
“We were no good,” said Babcock, explaining what’s changed. “You look at it, we had a lot of players at the start that are good players for us that weren’t very good. They slapped us around. Now I thought our Game 2 was way better than the [7-3] score, but that’s life.
“None of that really matters now. Here we are, I think our guys are feeling good and we have an opportunity.”
It’s a chance for most of them to step into the great unknown. A chance to experience just how much of a hockey town Toronto can be.
Gardiner was asked what kind of experience they can draw on.
“Other than the other Game 7?” he replied.
Yeah, by now enough has probably been said about that one. But know this: A win here on Wednesday would ensure that old relic is left in the back of the closest forevermore. That alone should be motivation enough.