TORONTO – A bow has been tied on the longest and most successful regular season in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 105-year history, finally.
In defeating the Providence/Boston Bruins 5-2 Friday – a Game 82 that carried roughly the intensity of preseason Game 2 — the Maple Leafs wrapped up a perfect final week and will carry a (healthy!) three-game win streak into the nights that really matter.
The final tally of Toronto’s gaudiest singular season as a team: 54 wins, 115 points, a plus-62 goal differential, the scariest power play in hockey, and 13 players registering career highs in points.
“We've had a very focused regular season. We're a very committed group,” said veteran Jason Spezza.
“With the failure we had last year, I think it would have been easy to look past the regular season, and [head coach] Sheldon [Keefe] did a great job all year of keeping us on task.”
What Friday’s finale lacked in motivation or drama, it made up for in rest and respect.
The Maple Leafs’ securing of home ice in Round 1 allowed them leeway to healthy-scratch its three highest-paid forwards — 60-goal man Auston Matthews, 97-point playmaker Mitch Marner and captain John Tavares — and keep Game 1 starting goaltender Jack Campbell on the bench.
Look no further than the questionable goaltending health in Carolina or Pittsburgh or Nashville to understand how critical it is for Toronto to have Campbell both in a groove and not overworked heading into its showdown with the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday.
“That was Priority 1 for us for the last couple of months here,” Keefe said before the game.
That the Bruins scratched nearly every top-line player the salary cap would allow — (deep breath) Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Taylor Hall, Erik Haula, Charlie McAvoy, and Matt Grzelcyk — essentially showed they were content to face the Carolina Hurricanes in Round 1 instead of overexerting themselves to face the Leafs.
By thumping Boston’s B-squad in regulation, Toronto locked in what should be an electric tilt with the two-time Stanley Cup champion Lightning.
“They have elite players at all positions, great depth, great experience,” Keefe said. “It’s a great challenge.
“When I look at our group, I think, the harder, the better. That's what we need.”
Tampa has the firepower and confidence, the depth and all-world goaltending to take a legitimate stab at a threepeat.
The biggest mystery around head coach Jon Cooper’s bunch is how much of a toll the accumulated wear and tear of eight playoff rounds over two short summers has taken on his core.
“That'll only be a question if we get bounced early. And if we make a deep run, it'll be like, ‘Well, look at the mental, physical toughness that team,’” Cooper said. “I don't know if that's a question can be answered [now]. But I wouldn't ever sit here and say, regardless of what happens in spring, we're tired.”
“I mean, we’ve played a lot of hockey, that's for sure,” admitted Victor Hedman, the best defenceman in the series. “But we won the ultimate prize two years in a row. Now, we got another chance at it. So, you gotta fight through those thoughts.
“The staff has been good with giving us rest days. Mentally and physically, I think we're prepared to do another long run. It’s gonna be a lot of other teams that think the same way. Everyone wants to win.”
Still, the case could be made that of the 16 teams in this spring’s tournament, this Maple Leafs core — losers of five consecutive postseason series — should want it most of all.
“I don’t think anything you say about the Leafs is going to matter to anybody in this room outside of where I am standing, unless they do better in the playoffs,” Cooper said, during his most recent meeting with Toronto media. “I think everybody here is saying that about them.
“For me, I see a hell of a hockey team. They have been a hell of a hockey team that has run into some bad breaks come the spring. And it seems that, for whatever reason, they haven’t got over the hump yet. But they have a team that definitely can.
“It’s for you guys to judge. I think they’re as good a team as we have played all year. But again, they probably will be judged more on how they do in the spring.”
No doubt, Leafs Nation will smuggle gavels inside their pompoms.
The Maple Leafs will take Saturday off, then run through a full practice Sunday before welcoming the champs to town on Monday.
After two years of masks and bubbles and empty seats and phony, computer-generated fan noise at Toronto Maple Leafs’ home playoff dates, the barn will be alive and full and buzzing to deafening decibels.
Almost as loud as the anxiety.
The dinosaurs have fled Jurassic Park, opening the gates for the ghosts.
Hey, we see a hell of a team, too.
Who knows? This could be the year.
All the Maple Leafs must do in Stage 1 is beat the best. This is like Super Mario facing Bowser at the end of Level 1-1.
Tampa-Toronto will be fast and fierce, loaded with hate and star power.
Our early prediction: It’ll be the most entertaining of the eight opening-round matchups.
"It should be awesome," Leafs winger Wayne Simmonds said.
"Our fan base is, to say the least, crazy. It's going to be extremely exciting."
Fox’s Fast 5
• Nice little reward for callup Joey Anderson to squeeze into the Leafs’ final match. The 23-year-old winger has enjoyed his most productive season as a pro, leading all Marlies with 26 goals.
• Four Maple Leafs played the full 82 games this season: Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Alexander Kerfoot and David Kämpf. That’s a first for Kerfoot and Kämpf. NHLers take significant pride in perfect attendance.
“You don’t really appreciate it while you’re in it,” says Rielly, who thought back to his games missed due to a broken foot in 2019-20. “It's tough at times when you're battling injury and you're competing and just trying to keep yourself in the lineup. So, if you're able to stay healthy and play 82, do whatever you got to do off the ice to keep in the lineup, it's a good feeling.”
• Harvard alum Nicholas Abruzzese fittingly scored his first NHL goal against Boston, a nifty buzzer beating tip of a Rielly point shot with 7.6 seconds remaining in the first period. He’ll give the puck to his parents.
“Smart player. He’s not overly big or scary-looking,” Rielly says. “But he wins a lot battles, plays right, and is in good position. I think he’s done a really good job for us.”
• Cool touch by Keefe to throw an all-Ontario lineup over the boards for puck drop: Spezza, Simmonds, T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin, and Kyle Clifford. Unofficial leaders Muzzin and Spezza wore an “A” on their sweaters with 75 per cent of the usual captains scratched.
“At this point in my career, I think you lead without letters,” Spezza says.
• Quote of the Day
Simmonds, chuckling, when asked about Bruins pest Brad Marchand: “I could say some things, but I want to be child-friendly.