Maple Leafs thoughts ahead of Game 7: What will define this year's team?

Eric Engels and Chris Johnston joined Sportsnet Central to take a look at difference-makers from the first six games between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs and preview Game 7.

Fans may be surprised to know that by the time you hit Game 3-4 of a playoff series, the greater work of a coaching staff all but melts away. That’s not to say the decisions they make at that point aren’t crucial; they are, more than ever. But so much of coaching is the hurried preparation for your opponent, studying their most recent run of games, laying out their systems to your team, then focusing on how to beat them.

But after a few head-to-head games there are very few surprises. Everyone has laid their cards face up, there are no aces up sleeves. Your team has a framework for what’s going to happen, and so as a staff, you’re left to focus on your lineup and possible tweaks with no busy work left to do. You can only pore over the same video clips from the previous game so many times.

I bring this up now because that’s where I sit on analysis for Leafs/Habs Game 6, and heading into Game 7. When it comes to the teams, I don’t think we learned anything we didn’t know, we aren’t going to see anything we haven’t seen, and so at this point it comes down to which team’s players play better on that night in those moments.

I emphasize “that” and “those” because they relate to one of my favourite motivational nuggets I picked up somewhere along my career: each game is defined by a dozen or less pivotal moments, and you never know when you’re in one, so always assume you are.

Playoff games are naturally close given the dearth of outright bad teams left, and everyone is focused and aiming to peak in those games. That means tight scores, that means overtimes, and that means sometimes the slightly better team doesn’t win.

At the end of the day though, the good teams find their way through.

Nashville pushed Carolina deep into their Round 1 series and multiple overtimes before the Canes got it done. Minnesota pushed the better Golden Knights the distance before Vegas moved on. Upsets happen, but we remember them because the bulk of the time, the good teams find their way through.

So, I’m not going to mail it in entirely on you here from an analysis standpoint, but they do solely pertain to the personnel decision the Leafs coaching staff will be considering over the next 24 hours.

• I loathe “is he hurt” talk any time a great player doesn’t produce in the playoffs, because sometimes you just don’t score, and it’s more likely to happen when a team specifically game-plans to shut down said great player. But watching Auston Matthews, I can’t help but wonder “Is he exhausted?”

Yes, you can throw a billion shot attempt numbers at me here, and laud the defensive play of their line. Matthews had 15 attempts last game, which is ludicrous. But you can’t watch how he looked in Games 1 and 2 and claim he’s had the same juice in Game 5 and 6. He’s seen a ton of minutes against a great defensive line in high pressure situations over a compact period of time. He’s not a robot.

Still, he only needs a small pocket of space and time to change the series, but he’s looked unable to create that on his own the past two games. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen in Game 7, but it was the case in Games 5 and 6.

• I’ve seen two things happen with Mitch Marner over the course of this series: he’s gotten better with the puck and his decision-making with it as it’s gone along, but like Matthews, the juice doesn’t quite seem to be there. The “Is he exhausted?” question is relevant to Marner too, of course, as the Leafs winger has played just shy of 150 minutes through six games (Matthews has logged over 142 minutes), which is nearly 30 minutes more than the Canadiens forward with the highest TOI (Nick Suzuki has played about 120 minutes).

I’ve liked Marner’s play the past couple games. We’re into the moments that define a career now, though, and at some point he has to create pucks behind Carey Price or there’s a post-season narrative creeping up on him that’s gonna get real hard to shake.

William Nylander remains the Leafs forward with the most pop and shows of skill in the series. (Wouldn’t it be wild if after all the discourse around him he’s the guy to pull them through a playoff round?) He was still good in Game 6, but it was the first time he was content on the outside, rather than forcing his way in. He and Alex Kerfoot have been the team’s best and most consistent forwards. They need to keep Nylander on PP1, and Kerfoot needs to pair with Willy on line two, as opposed to Nick Foligno.

• Speaking of, Foligno was a game-time decision and it seems to me they should’ve game-time decided that he wasn’t healthy enough to play. He was brought to the Leafs to provide that grit and pressure and inside play they’ve been lacking in the post-season. He is that player, and it was the right call. He just can’t physically do it right now. Something is way too tender (his back?) which leaves him playing like he’s got a full-body sunburn, which utterly neutralizes him. Unless he feels better than he did going into Game 6, I think he’s gotta come out.

• Otherwise if you’re making a change it’s gotta be Joe Thornton, which leaves them exactly where they most feared being when they acquired him. They’re in a spot where they’d have to publicly rebuke a legend and deny him the very type of moment he wanted to be in when he came to Toronto. Nobody wants to see that happen. But he looks his age right now in a series that saw an OT winner scored on a 2-on-0 by two players with a combined age of about Thornton. It’s a bummer, but it’s also a reality.

• As for who you bring in up front, it’s a scary choice. You can bring in Riley Nash, who’s looked almost too slow for the league let alone a playoff series in his first two appearances for the Leafs, but whose reputation is that of a trusted defensive player and PK guy. Or you can bring in a kid with upside in Adam Brooks, who also comes with the risk of making a glaring mistake that the Leafs have tried to purge from their roster this season.

• Prediction: Foligno is good enough to play in Game 7, and they live by the cane, die by the cane with Thornton. No changes at forward.

Jake Muzzin has been the Leafs' best defenceman this season, full stop. Losing a D-man is a smaller problem for the Leafs this year given Rasumus Sandin-Travis Dermott is a fully capable, talented pair. But losing Muzzin isn’t “losing a D-man,” it’s losing Muzzin, and that’s a huge loss.

It’s surmountable, but Muzzin out, Tavares out, Foligno neutralized, Matthews/Marner slowing down … the issues are piling up.

Jack Campbell has been absolutely everything they hoped he could be. But unfortunately, none of it will matter if he can’t do it one more time. A good game and he’s probably the Leafs' starter next year. If he’s awful, who knows?

This is all from the Leafs point of view, of course. On Saturday night the Habs played just four D (they straight up didn’t use their bottom pair), which meant huge minutes in a fast game, and their top-3 TOI guys (Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber) are all north of 30 years old (Weber is 35). It’s been a long season for them with their COVID-altered schedule. Surely they’re tired, too.

But despite the realities of Montreal’s “all-in” campaign this season, the pressure still falls squarely on the collective shoulders of the Leafs, who’ve won the division and “taken a big step” and promised to be something different.

None of the talk matters now, and there’s very little coaching left to be done. It’s down to that night and those moments. The series only has a dozen or less of them to go, so I’d recommend each of those players assume they’re always in one.

Because you just never know.

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