It was never going to be easy.
Winning a playoff round with this core is a hurdle the Toronto Maple Leafs are desperate to clear, and the longer it takes to happen the more the hurdle looks like a wall to be clambered over with teamwork rather than breezily cleared with an unbroken stride.
I think all of us in our own lives are familiar with the concept of wanting something too much, whether it’s a job, a relationship, or anything else. It can be a curse. In hockey, it plays itself out when slumping players start “squeezing the stick too tight,” which isn’t always so much literal as it is about becoming mentally rigid and inflexible, traits that badly constrict the offensive needs of a sport where the play changes shape like water at the speed of lightning.
We see versions of that tightness in every sport. In golf, a game that requires players to calmly execute a basic stroke (that they’ve repeated thousands of times before) while under pressure, there’s a putting term called the “yips.” The yips are a tiny spasm players will get at the worst possible moment as they grind over makeable three footers, causing them to inexplicably blow easy putts they’ve routinely made in the past. It has so badly afflicted desperate golfers that the widely respected Mayo Clinic has spent actual resources researching the condition (I know this, as they flew a friend of mine in to study his atrocious motion), concluding with this:
“Some athletes become so anxious and self-focused — overthinking to the point of distraction — that their ability to execute a skill, such as putting, is impaired. 'Choking' is an extreme form of performance anxiety that may compromise a golfer's or any athlete's game.”
I wonder if Alex Galchenyuk has, in his entire hockey playing life, made another pass as bad as the one he made in OT of Game 5? He’s been great, don’t get me wrong – but I bet he’d tell you he’s never made a play so egregiously bad.
I’ve been fascinated by the way in which this Leafs series and the undeniable pressure was almost just brushed away with their collective fingers in their ears while quietly humming “la la la la la” hoping to never have to hear it, see it, or feel it. There seemed to be hope that the pressure building over the years was going to be quietly released with a frictionless series win.
Unfortunately, it’s coming the wrong way down the one-way street to the Stanley Cup now, and facing it has become unavoidable.
After their painful OT loss in Game 5 the Maple Leafs are getting another chance to move on past the first round, in Montreal, where the first fans in Canada will be welcomed back to a building in over a year. The concern isn’t that the meagre amount of fans will be intimidating, of course, it’s “are they able to feel the momentum swing the wrong way in the series, then execute the same stroke they’ve made over makeable putts all year?”
On Thursday afternoon Islanders coach Barry Trotz joined Hockey Central on the radio and said some inspiring things, two of which pertained to pressure and the playoffs. You recall, of course, the Capitals were a team with badly mounting pressure when he was there. They had won Presidents' Trophies, had peak Alex Ovechkin, and they had fallen short of expectations multiple times thanks to the relentless pushback of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Leafs haven’t accomplished what those pre-Cup Capitals had, but I can’t say I didn’t see some relevant bits of theory for a striving team that wakes up today 0-5 in games where they’ve had a chance to eliminate their opponent from the post-season.
“We had lost to the Penguins two straight years there, and I was really wound up. There’s a lot of pressure, when you’re a President's Trophy team … there’s a weight that goes with that. Everybody’s expecting you to dominate teams in the playoffs, and you just can’t. This league is too good. I was saying a few years back, the difference between the team that wins the Presidents' Trophy and the team that is generally eighth place in your conference is one win a month maybe. You think about that, that’s not a lot.
"And so during the season, if you have a deep talented team, or a skilled team, you win some of those games just purely on skill, power play, specials teams, and it’s harder to do that in the playoffs. It all changed for me when we lost those two series to Pittsburgh, I sort of re-evaluated how...there was a lot of things being said about that group. There was a lot of things being said about myself, or Alex, or Nick Backstrom, or some of those guys, and I just realized that I wasn’t going to be defined by any trophy. If I’m going to be defined in this world as a person because I have a trophy or don’t have a trophy, then … that’s not what I want to be known for. I want to be known for being good at my craft and a good person.”
There’s no solution for Toronto there, but there’s at least some healthy advice for how to frame the pressure – it’s just hockey pressure. Trotz found a way to relieve some of that weight from himself, which surely relieved some pressure for his players too. You have to find your own solutions. That tied nicely to the part that strikes me as more relevant for the Leafs.
I asked him about his record in the first round, which is beyond good. Since 2010 he’s won two first-round series with Nashville, four with Washington and now three with the Islanders. He’s won seven straight since 2015. (Shouts to @TedStarkey who shared that.)
“I’m probably more relaxed in the playoffs than I am in the regular season. I think you have to push and prod a lot more in the regular season to get more out of your guys. We’re [the Islanders] not a team that … some teams are extremely high-skilled, they drop the puck and you’re in the regular season you’ve got a little bit more room, you make plays and win you hockey games. Then you get to the playoffs and there’s no room and the game changes on you, then you really struggle and you stress out about it. I felt like I’ve had to push and pull and prod a little bit more during the regular season than you do in the playoffs, I think everyone’s dialled in in the playoffs.
"I actually enjoy the playoffs, I think as a young coach, I used to get wound up for a playoff series, and I think that was probably a detriment to the groups that I was coaching. They saw me wound up, and they were probably a little tense. I’m actually very relaxed in playoff series’, maybe sometimes a little too relaxed, I just try to stress about really enjoying the moments, the playoffs. You earn the right. It’s so hard to get into the playoffs in the National Hockey League, and you earn the right to be there, so why not enjoy it, don’t be stressed out by it.”
I’m writing about pressure today -- and not systems or the lineup or what went wrong last game -- because of what’s pretty clear on its face to me: the 2020-21 Toronto Maple Leafs are a better hockey team than the 2020-21 Montreal Canadiens, and I don’t think it’s particularly close.
I think it gets closer if this starts to feel like pain and desperation for the Leafs, rather than seeing it as an earned opportunity to seize.
Because really, if Travis Dermott comes in for Rasmus Sandin...well OK. I’m not sure that moves the needle much at the end of the day if the Leafs’ best players bring their game (or don’t). If Riley Nash comes in for Adam Brooks, how much better or worse are the Leafs in that player’s 10 minutes of ice time? Should William Nylander play another minute or two when he’s “on” for the Leafs? Sure, they should try that next game if he’s still “going.” But these conversations are debating the scent of the candles inside the fully-built mansion.
At the end of the day, I come back to the comments made by Sheldon Keefe about Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman heading into the series.
“I don’t feel the need to protect Auston from anybody. He and Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman need to take on the most difficult match-ups. That’s important for our team.”
That sounds like “Let’s not overthink this here” to me. “We are what we are and we’re gonna go play.”
This is where the overall theory should be for this Leafs team, and I’m guessing where it’s at for Keefe, a man who’s won titles and made numerous deep playoff runs at every level he’s coached. This is a time to face it head on, not protecting anyone from anybody.
The Leafs are a good team, the better team as I mentioned, if they’re just able to overcome the invisible force of pressure and play their game. I wouldn’t call what’s left a three-foot putt, but the principle of simply executing the same stroke they’ve made all season in the face of pressure remains the same.
Revel in the opportunity. This is no time for the yips.