Stanley Cup Playoffs What To Watch For: Can the Leafs finally do it?

Luke Fox and Shawn Mackenzie discuss if the Toronto Maple Leafs have what it takes to take the next step and advance past the first round of the playoffs by dethroning back-to-back defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Carolina, Toronto, St. Louis and Los Angeles all have a chance to move on to Round 2 on Thursday, while Boston, Tampa, Minnesota and Edmonton look to hang on for a Game 7.

Here's what to watch for in Stanley Cup Playoff action:

Can the Maple Leafs finally do it?

It's not the first time these Leafs have been in position to win a series since the salary-cap era began in 2005-06.

You had the 2013 Bruins series in which Toronto trailed three games to one, came back to force Game 7, and even held a 4-1 lead in that game ... and lost.

You had the 2018 Bruins series in which Toronto roared back from a 3-1 series deficit again and had a one-goal lead going into the third period of Game 7... and lost.

You had the 2019 Bruins series in which Toronto held a 3-2 series lead and then ... lost decisively in Game 7.

You had the 2020 qualifying-round series -- technically not even playoffs -- against Columbus. Toronto never held a series lead in that best-of-five and in the deciding game they ... were shut out and lost.

And you had maybe the best opportunity of all, 2021's series against Montreal, in which Toronto held a 3-1 series lead, then allowed a Game 7 in which they were effectively shut out until the final minute and a half ... and lost.

Now, in 2022, they hold a 3-2 series lead over the back-to-back champion Lightning. Could it be different this time? Some past trends will have to be cut off.

Thursday night brings Toronto its eighth chance to win a round (qualifying included) since that 2018 series against Boston and, of course, they're 0-7 in these games. Some will have to wait to see it to believe anything has changed and, really you can't blame them. It feels like there's been a curse in the air.

But it also felt different in how the Leafs asserted themselves in Game 5. They trailed by two early and past iterations of the team may have let that snowball and slip away. Instead, it was a full-on pushback for two periods in which it felt the Leafs had near-full control of the flow of play.

Going back to Tampa, where the Lightning will have last change that allowed them to shut down Toronto's top unit in Game 3 and 4, that whole feeling could flip again. But it only feels like a curse until it suddenly doesn't.

"The feeling of winning is contagious and it's one that it's addicting in the sense you want to keep with it," Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said Wednesday. "I think we look at the team we're trying to beat here and they have that and that's carried them through two playoff runs and two championships and that's what's going to make it that much more difficult to finish the job on them.

"They also went through their own experience to get them to where they're at here now. For us obviously it has been a challenge to close out series, but it's one we believe our team's worked for all season and has had that attitude to rise to challenges. There's a lot of different things along the way, but the one (in Game 5) in terms of perseverance and staying with it, stepping up in big moments and not being denied I think sets the table for us to have the confidence to finish this."

The Lightning did have a challenge in returning to the top of the heap. They missed the playoffs entirely in 2016-17, and in 2018-19 they had one of the best regular season teams of all time lose in Round 1 of the playoffs. A lot of "what's wrong with the core, what needs to change" questions were asked, and then Tampa followed up with two Cup wins in a row.

But, of course, their struggle wasn't defined by an inability to get out of Round 1. Tampa lost in the 2015 Cup Final and in the 2016 and 2018 Conference Finals. It took them a couple years to get over the final hump ... it's taken the Leafs 18 years since their last playoff series win.

Can they break the slump Thursday, or will this return to Toronto for Game 7 on Saturday?

Can the Oilers stay alive without their top defenceman?

Speaking of teams with first-round slumps, the Oilers' isn't quite as long as Toronto's -- Edmonton escaped the first round in 2017 -- but the recent past is concerning. With two of the top players in the game leading the way, Edmonton wasn't able to get past the lowly Chicago Blackhawks in 2020's qualifying round, nor could they earn a single win in last year's sweep against Winnipeg.

This year the Oilers took a 2-1 series lead against the Kings when they dominated an 8-2 decision on the road in Game 3. That felt like a turning point. Then the Kings won Game 4 with a shutout and would have run away with Game 5 too had Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl not utterly taken over the third-period comeback. Los Angeles got the win in OT anyway in front of the Oilers faithful.

Game 6 is back in Los Angeles and Edmonton has a major change in its lineup: no Darnell Nurse after their top defender was given a one-game suspension for this headbutt.

Aside from being the team's top minute-eater on the blue line, Nurse is the only Oilers defenceman with positive shot metrics at 5-on-5, with a 52.20 shots for percentage. Edmonton has also outscored the Kings 8-4 with Nurse on the ice at 5-on-5, the best among all Oilers blueliners.

And now he's gone.

A loss and elimination for the Oilers this time will not fall on McDavid or Draisaitl, who have been fantastic (especially the former) all series and have stepped up in key moments. There will be a lot of roster construction questions should they fall again.

But, especially without Nurse, Edmonton will need big games from those two now more than ever.

Will Cam Talbot be the right call to start Game 6 for the Wild?

The St. Louis Blues have been aggressive in how they've changed their lines over this series, and even their goaltender. The Wild have been less active in this approach, but following a 5-2 loss on home ice to put them on the brink, head coach Dean Evason teased that some lineup changes were coming.

"Will we make some changes? Ya for sure. Will we divulge them today? No," Evason said on Wednesday.

The big question was what happens in net, where Marc-Andre Fleury has a .906 series save percentage and has allowed four goals against in back-to-back games. Behind him sits Cam Talbot, the former No. 1 who was supplanted at the trade deadline, but then outplayed Fleury in split starts the remainder of the regular season. He is the goalie under contract for next season, whereas Fleury is likely to leave via free agency with the Wild facing an immense cap crunch. Not that you make your goalie start choices based on the bigger picture like that, but even the smaller picture suggests Talbot might be the choice here.

"We trust both our goaltenders," Evason said. "We've seen enough of Marc-Andrey Fleury to know that he's a guy that responds correctly. We also know that Cam Talbot is the ultimate professional who works his butt off if playing or not playing, he would be ready to go tomorrow as well."

Turns out, the Wild will turn back to Talbot with their season on the brink. Will it be the right call?

Interestingly, the Wild found themselves in a Round 1 Game 6 last year when they trailed the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2. In that game, Talbot earned a 23-save shutout to force a Game 7. He beat Fleury on the other side. Vegas did win the series in seven games, though.

Will home-ice advantage continue to be the key in the Carolina-Boston series?

After two games in this series, the Bruins looked toast. They were outscored 10-3 by Carolina in those games, which continued a regular-season trend where the Canes were the far superior team.

But when the series shifted back to Boston, The Perfection Line was reunited, Jeremy Swayman entered the net and the Bruins were a far different team. The netminding stood up to Carolina's offence and, most importantly, Boston's best players shone through, led by Brad Marchand's eight points in the two home games.

In Game 5 back in Carolina, it was the Canes again taking control with a one-sided 5-1 decision. Now it's back in Boston for Game 6 -- so will home-ice continue to be the deciding factor here, or can the Canes overcome a hurdle of their own and finally knock off one of the established Atlantic Division teams in the playoffs?

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