10 thoughts on the Maple Leafs and what it means for defining Game 7

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe discusses all the reasons that he and the group are confident heading into Game 7 vs. the Lightning, says the top players have shown so much fight, perseverance, and proves this team and season is different.

Like just about every team in the NHL’s salary cap era, you can only go as far as your best players takes you. We elevate the moments where fourth liners score huge goals in huge moments, but the Max Talbots of the world don’t have their heroic moments without the Sidney Crosbys helping them get that far (and they would tell you the same). 

To that concept, the Leafs' top players have been their top players, so now in a one game series, some others will have opportunities to elevate their names. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander were uniformly excellent in one of the best hockey games of Toronto's season -- in Tampa Bay, trying to knock out a scrapping, counter-punching group of recent champions. It was a heartbreaker for the Leafs, who didn’t shrink from the moment but rather rose to it, taking the bulk of the second half play to the Lightning as they pushed to land the final blow.

They’re heading back to Toronto for Game 7, which validates a season of great work. They’ll get their home crowd, and last change, and one more crack at breaking what legitimately feels like a curse at this point. 

There are few surprises left in this series. You know the cast of characters, and the stage is plainly set. But I do have 10 thoughts after watching four periods of thrilling hockey on Thursday night, to put things under a little closer microscope.

Victor Hedman appreciation moment

He is not unheralded. He’s a Norris Trophy-winning, Conn Smythe-winning, Stanley Cup-winning future Hall-of-Famer. He gets his due. But Game 6 was a reminder that he’s the most important cog in the Lightning machine (even if shot attempt numbers were against him - any D would’ve been under water in his role). Yes Andrei Vasilevskiy has been great in the past, but he’s posted a sub-.900 save percentage this series, and Tampa Bay still has three wins. Yes Nikita Kucherov has won a Hart Trophy and has eight points, but he runs hot and cold, while Hedman just … runs.

His work breaking the puck up and in for the Bolts has been staggering, and a real problem for the Leafs. I keep waiting for one of his rushes to lead to a turnover and an odd-man rush the other way, but it just never seems to happen. In Game 6, he led the Lightning in both controlled zone exits (12), AND zone entries (10, three more than the game’s next-highest total, Auston Matthews’ seven). 

On Alexander Kerfoot, William Nylander and the concept of being “all around it”

I recognize many people saw Kerfoot’s failed drop pass at 4-on-4 that led to the game’s opening goal and hung on to it, but don’t let that impede your view of his whole game. He was flying, and the only Leafs player with as many zone exits as the aforementioned Hedman. He’s one of the few Leafs whose game translates better in the playoffs, where he can dip and cut to the inside of the opposition’s structure like a pesky mosquito you can’t quite slap away.

One thing I’ve come to recognize over the years watching this Leafs team is that the guys who show up early as all around the puck and the play -- even when the plays don’t go well -- end up being the guys who score the big goals. I thought both Nylander and Kerfoot were “all around it” in Game 6. There were a lot of good plays, some bad, but nonetheless involved. I’ve said this before, but past iterations of the Leafs have failed when guys have disappeared meekly into the night. Numbers 15 and 88 were present in Game 6, knocking on the door as much as anyone.

“John’s time will come” was prescient

After Game 4 Sheldon Keefe talked about his captain, who let’s face it, hadn’t been “all around it,” or all that present in the early part of the series. His play in Game 5 could arguably be labelled the difference between winning and losing, and in Game 6, he was again one of the Leafs' best players. He was dynamite in the face-off circle, defensively stout, and made a couple plays only elite players make en route to a two goal showing. 

It feels like Tavares has found his place within this type of series. He can’t force it, but has to just trust that the play will come to him, and be ready to be his best when it does. His time has come, as Keefe said, and him getting hot as they head to Game 7 is pretty nicely timed.

Supporting cast good: 64, 58, 11

Heading into Game 6 of this playoff series -- you’re barely going to believe this somehow-true stat -- David Kampf was leading the Leafs in 5-on-5 shots, one better than Matthews. After Game 6 Kampf’s in second, landing 14 shots on 17 attempts, with the second-best expected goals output on the team behind big 34. He’s been beyond good, taking key D-zone faceoffs, using his long stick to disrupt plays in the D-zone, and killing penalties. 

Michael Bunting has found his stride and taken back his spot on the top line as well. And Colin Blackwell’s speed has been a noticeable asset on the forecheck, where his tenacity provides a pop of energy when game play starts to lag a bit.

Supporting cast bad: 47, 65, 25

Two of the above three players (Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev) felt like the Leafs’ secret weapons heading into this playoff series, a couple of guys who had taken steps over the course of the season to go from just fill-in guys to legitimate difference makers. In the second half of the year they both scored with regularity (heck, Mikheyev was on pace for over 30), and their speed changed games. With Kampf, they dominated just about every matchup they were given.

For a solid three or four games now, Engvall has been an anchor for the Leafs, stuck in mud, stopped all too often, disengaged from the play. He’s got to get moving. Mikheyev has been better, but his play reminds me more of the season past, where he’s jumpier with the puck in his hands, making him quick to get rid of it, which more often results in a fumble than a well-orchestrated play. For once, they’re losing their minutes. These guys have more to give, and are candidates to step up and score a big surprise seventh-game goal. They’ve got the tools.

With Ondrej Kase, the Leafs are in a bit of a pickle. He’s just not been effective, and it’s harder to see him suddenly becoming effective. His three most notable O-zone touches in Game 6 resulted in non-threatening shots into opposition shin pads, he had an additional turnover, and just seems behind the play. Tough to fault the guy given what he’s trying to come back from and the pace of the series. But he saw just eight minutes of ice time over four periods in Game 6. Would they get more from Wayne Simmonds in those two minutes a period?

Some quick-hitters now:

Special teams series, penalties in Game 6

The Lightning scored at 4-on-4, on the power play, and short-handed in Game 6. It’s been the story of the series, which coach Jon Cooper has noted several times. But at least in Game 6 there were long runs of 5-on-5 play, and the game found some flow. I don’t expect Game 7 to be any different.

Vasy vs. Jack

This has not been the story of the series it had the potential to be, as both guys have been … fine. But it’s where the Lightning were said to have a big advantage heading into the series. Leafs fans remember the squeaker that Brendan Gallagher scored in Game 7 last year. I’d say the most important thing for the Leafs in Saturday’s deciding game is that this matchup continues to be a non-story.

OT positives

Speaking of looking back to last year, the Leafs took it heavy to Montreal in the OT of Game 6 before it got away from them, and I thought they were even better in Thursday’s OT against Tampa Bay. It was less “abandon all plans to go score” and more “create as it comes from diligent positioning,” and they played a tremendous period against a great opponent on the road in a big moment. If Game 5 felt like a step for this group, that felt like another one. I’ve got up arrows in my notes for Marners, Matthews, Rielly, Nylander, Tavares, Kampf and others. Hockey’s a strange game, man. It just wouldn’t go in for them.

Kudos to the composed play of Leafs veteran D: 78, 8, 3, 55

There’s a quietness to this group of Leafs D that allows their forwards to thrive. Some may complain it lacks bite, sure, but as the stakes mount, having a guy like Jake Muzzin (who won’t forget they lost in their previous two playoff series), and Mark Giordano make it feel like they’ve always got an “adult” on the rink to calm things down before they get away from them.

I thought TJ Brodie, in particular, excelled there in Game 6. 

The pair of Morgan Rielly and Ilya Lyubushkin are another animal entirely, but I thought Lyubushkin was exceptional in Game 6 as well. He was physical without running around, and made some really good puck plays. Rielly is the most high risk/high reward guy on the back-end, and it’s good to have one of those out there (he was also better on the power play distributing the puck quickly). You definitely worry about this pair most of any, but they also have the most potential to swing a game with a positive play.

And finally,

It’s been a quieter run for the fourth lines, but watch out

For all the early series talk about the Lightning’s fourth line (including a game where they all scored), they’ve diminished in relevance as the series has gone on and everyone has moved from “setting the tone” to strictly “trying to win the series.” Now that said, watch out for Game 7. These guys have been there, done that, and know how to make a difference in minimal minutes.

Can the Leafs' fourth line, which will almost certainly include Jason Spezza and Colin Blackwell, provide that value for them going the other way? Will these fourth lines matter in the end?

Looking to Game 7

What’s been disappointing with the Leafs in their previous deciding games is the way they’ve just let them bleed away, without the type of counter-punch you need after inevitably getting hit. They’re going to have bad shifts, very likely get scored on, and so that becomes the ask this year -- can they get back up? There’s the military expression “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” so will Toronto be able to find themselves after the initial exchanges? 

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.