A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Best two words in sports, baby: Game Seven.
1. Sheldon Keefe sounded almost Yoda-esque prior to flying back to Toronto on Friday for the most important coaching assignment of his life: “The feeling in our team is one of great confidence.”
Could the threepeat-hunting Tampa Bay Lightning deliver a death blow to that confidence Saturday night? Sure.
But here are seven reasons why Keefe is correct to see the light side. Win, they must.
• The Maple Leafs’ best players have been their best players. Everyone with a letter, everyone who signed a contract worth at least $6.9 million annually, everyone who’s lived through five consecutive series defeats has raised his game and produced on the scoreboard. The Core Five (no, it doesn’t rhyme; yes, Morgan Rielly is just as integral) has shown up big-time.
“Our team is uniquely different. Our top players are executing at critical times and playing well as a group,” Keefe says.
“To go toe to toe with the back-to-back champs, we feel our top players are thriving. I still feel this team has lots of fight.”
• Andrei Vasilevskiy has been beatable. True, the Conn Smythe winner looked all-world when he was under siege late in Game 6, but the Leafs have pumped at least three pucks past him in every game this series. If his .885 save percentage is a hint, the Big Cat’s insane streak of five consecutive shutouts in close-out games could be in danger.
• The Leafs hold final change. Much like special teams, home ice has absolutely been a factor in this airtight battle. The team in blue has outduelled the team in white 4-2. This is where the winningest regular season in Leafs history can pay off.
This group has never played a series-deciding game in front of jampacked home crowd, and if Game 1 and Game 5 are any indication, positive noise could influence here. More important: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will be able to avoid Tampa’s superb Alex Killorn–Anthony Cirelli–Brayden Point matchup unit more often.
Historically, home teams have a 107-77 record in Game 7.
• Jack Campbell has more to give. Yes, he has a shutout and a slightly better save percentage than his counterpart. But we have not seen the best version of Campbell quite yet (.893). Nor have we seen him at his sharpest early the past three outings.
Redemption is on the table. Dial in from puck drop, out-save the other guy, and he can snatch it.
• Penalties should not be the story. Smart decision by the Leafs players to not comment on Game 6’s costly officiating. Smarter decision by Keefe to empathize with the refs, noting they didn’t have the benefit of slow-motion replay on David Kämpf’s phantom high stick and Cal Foote’s head snap.
We’re betting the stripes will be “letting the players decide” a do-or-die affair. If anything, they may feel they owe the Leafs a call.
• Let’s be honest: The Maple Leafs need it more. And it has showed in their refusal to wilt in the face of 2-0 deficits in games 5 (a comeback win) and 6 (an OT thriller they could’ve grabbed).
Keefe concedes his favoured bunch went into Game 7 against Montreal and Game 5 against Columbus on “a downer” based on their performance in losses. This time, they’re hanging right there with a much superior foe.
The Lightning have an opportunity to do something awesome, to run the table again and become the first three-time champs since the early-’80s Islanders. And if they don’t? Well, their consolation prize is a vacation and status as the Best Franchise of the Cap Era.
Imagine the Leafs showing up at training camp in September and looking at all the faces of guys who lost six straight playoff series and failed to eliminate an opponent in nine straight opportunities.
• One win could be a catapult. Glance around the East. Who’s scarier or healthier than the Bolts? The Maple Leafs (knock wood) are just as healthy (Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are skating on the fourth pair) and, we’d argue, deeper and more consistent than any other outfit in their conference.
2. The individual games haven’t all been close, but the Leafs-Lightning series has been neck-and-neck by almost every measure.
After 378 minutes of intense hockey, the Lightning hold a slight edge in shot attempts (352-345), shots (190-185) and scoring chances (210-194).
The Maple Leafs have the upper hand in expected goals (19.82-19.24), high-danger chances (81-75), and actual goals (23-21).
“Not a lot between the two teams,” Keefe says.
In other words, neither team should feel like it derives anything better than a 3-3 series deadlock. “Ref! You! Suck!” chants rang out just as loud in Amalie Arena for games 3, 4 and 6 as they did in Scotiabank Arena for games 1, 2 and 5.
In a sport that can be cruelly unfair, this Game 7 is deserved.
“It’s kinda been punch for punch,” Matthews says. “The hardest game to win is the last one. It’s a really good opportunity for our group to grasp the moment.”
3. Count me among the thousands floored by the Barry Trotz firing.
The job offers have already started rolling in.
If Trotz wishes to jump right back behind a new bench, he’ll be the most courted man since Toronto outbid Buffalo for free-agent Mike Babcock.
A hunch: He waits until a couple of solid playoff teams lose early. In other words, don’t simply focus on the clubs with current vacancies. More could be coming.
P.S. Regardless whom Lou Lamoriello hires as the next Isles coach, Mathew Barzal’s fantasy value just went up.
4. Lightning coach Jon Cooper was asked for his pick among the Hart Trophy finalists: Matthews, Connor McDavid, and Igor Shesterkin.
“It’s hard in this league to score 60 goals,” Cooper replied. “Any one of them can win. But scoring 60 is scoring 60. That's pretty good.”
Matthews became the first Leaf in 79 years to finish top three in Hart voting in consecutive seasons (Syl Apps, 1941-42, 1942-43).
“It’s a big honour, but right now obviously the focus isn’t much on that,” Matthews said.
Keefe points to Matthews’ 5-on-5 scoring — “the hardest thing to do in our game” — as the most impressive aspect separating him from the pack.
“He does that at a rate nobody in the game has been able to keep up with the past few years,” Keefe notes.
I had Johnny Gaudreau third on my ballot and was mildly surprised Roman Josi finished ahead of Gaudreau for the Ted Lindsay.
Can’t recall a season with so many worthy of finalist status.
“Gosh, [Jonathan] Huberdeau’s name is missing from that list,” Cooper added. “Johnny Gaudreau is plus-1,000. He probably could’ve been in there.”
5. Very cool. TNT’s Wayne Gretzky participated in trophy voting as one of a few broadcasters selected to join the professional hockey writers in the process.
To the PWHA’s knowledge, this is the first time in the award’s 98-year history that an actual Hart winner (nine-time no less) will have a say who hoists it.
All votes will be made public following the award ceremonies.
Gretzky’s ballot might earn a couple more page views than mine, but I’m going to tell my grandchildren I was once peers with 99.
6. For all the hype and hoopla around trade deadline, there has been no better midseason acquisition than Ken Holland’s highly scrutinized signing of sudden UFA Evander Kane.
Kane’s impactful late run on the Oilers’ top-six has only gathered steam in the postseason.
The guy co-leads all goal-scorers with seven. Count ’em on your fingers.
7. The most incredible part about Darryl Sutter’s brilliant (if savage) prediction that playing the Colorado Avalanche in the opening round would be a “waste of eight days”?
The Nashville Predators were done in seven.
8. Paul Maurice walked away from Winnipeg with his head high. In the nick of time, right before the building exploded — like some kind of dry-wit action hero.
Sources say Maurice could’ve already signed elsewhere but, as of now, is content to take a breather.
As a lover of good quotes and strong personalities, I selfishly want Maurice back in the game.
9. “Your face looks like a baby.”
10. We’ve reached Game 7 of the most-hyped series of these Stanley Cup playoffs, and central figures Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov have yet to speak to reporters because they are Russian.
11. Oiler turned must-listen podcaster and adult-lemonade czar Ryan Whitney tweeted a fiery opinion when Michael Bunting was announced as a Calder finalist:
“Lucas Raymond had the same amount of goals as Bunting, only 6 less points, is 6 years younger and didn’t play with Matthews and Marner. This is a joke.”
Bunting, 26, sloughs off the age jokes and Billy Madison memes.
“I hear quite a bit, but it doesn't bother me. I do qualify as a rookie, and that's how it is,” Bunting says. “I just laugh at all that. I tune out all that kind of noise. I just have fun with it.”
It’s no given that playing on a top line guarantees easy points, and the determined Bunting earned that position, climbing up from the fourth line.
"The second he signed here, he was in the building every day putting the work in," Jason Spezza says. "It's not by mistake that he had the year that he had.
"He realizes how hard it is probably more than anyone here. He spent a lot of time in the minors working to get to this point. And then when he got that opportunity, it was his — and he didn't want to let it go."
Points aside, Bunting was a beast at drawing penalties — a valuable trait when you help put the NHL’s most dangerous 5-on-4 unit on the ice — and was less of a defensive liability than Raymond.
By rule, he’s a rookie and therefore deserves consideration. He was on my ballot.
Detroit’s Moritz Seider will likely win the award.
Full disclosure, I also had Nashville’s Tanner Jeannot ahead of Raymond. Love the edge in that kid’s game.
12. It’s Saturday.
The sun is out.
A Game 7 triple-header is on tap.
The two best players in hockey are on fire and under the gun, and a future Hall of Famer might just be playing for one last chance to go deep.
Nights like these, sports fans, don’t come around often.