‘Something bigger than yourself’: Underdog Maple Leafs return to playoffs tougher

Kyper and Bourne discussion getting us hyped up for the Maple Leafs' first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins, breaking down both teams' chances and comparing rosters to see where the advantages may lean.

BOSTON — This edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs isn’t necessarily any better than the seven previous, those high-flying hockey teams who thrill for 82 and clench when the lights brighten.

This edition is different, however.

So, that is what the hopefuls, those forever-loyal believers, will cling to Saturday when the curtain opens and the clapboard slaps on “Take 8!” for the playoff saga starring Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly. (Take 6 for captain John Tavares.)

The first seven installments of what is either an incredibly drawn-out tragedy or quite the slow build to triumph have all ended in more misery than change.

Hockey folk like to say it’s a “results-driven business,” and yet this era of Maple Leafs’ playoff series record of 1-7 hasn’t cost club president Brendan Shanahan his job. And last summer, it earned former GM Kyle Dubas a juicy raise and title promotion overseeing a non-playoff team in Pittsburgh. It earned head coach Sheldon Keefe a raise and two-year contract extension, lest his contract year be a distraction.

Fantastical individual campaigns and breathtaking skill have earned Matthews the power to become the richest hockey player by per annum basis, starting next season; blessed Nylander with the richest contract in the history of a 107-year-old franchise; and placed Marner in line for comparable negotiating power as a spectacular two-way winger as early as Canada Day.

While the collective progress stalls, the individuals at the centre of group underachievement are all set and comfy.

So, what’s new? 

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Why would 2024 be any different than seven springs past?

And won’t they lose Game 7 in TD Garden anyway? That hostile Beantown barn shaking with spectres and rattling “Zombie Nation” on repeat — the Bruins’ goal song seemingly a synonym for what Boston turns Leafs Nation into. 

Walking dead-eyed to nowhere. Yet still walking because what else are they going to do.

The sell from new and unscarred general manager Brad Treliving — who likes his teams bigger and more belligerent than his predecessor — is a grittier supporting cast, some legitimate secondary scorers, a mandate to stick up for one another in scrums, and a taller, nastier, deeper defence corps.

“A ton of firepower. Added some toughness,” Boston captain Brad Marchand says of the Leafs. “Playing much harder, tougher brand of hockey. So, it should be a great matchup. A ton of fun. We’re excited to get going.”

Sure, Toronto’s decent regular season (46-26-10, third in the Atlantic) didn’t blow minds, and the Maple Leafs will enter the playoffs on the road for the first time in four years, but this group was never constructed to win the Presidents’ Trophy anyway.

That’s the pitch.

As ever, these Maple Leafs are a Rorschach test sketched on 200-by-85-foot canvas.

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Depending on your level of optimism, or how Nylander is backchecking that night, you can see an all-star assembly with a legitimate Stanley Cup case. Or you can see a deeply flawed roster that lacks the cohesion (or culture?) to survive the gauntlet.

Let’s begin with the positive.

The Leafs make scoring goals look easy.

No one in the Eastern Conference pumps pucks in the net at their rate (3.63 goals per game), and their oft-criticized power play still finished seventh overall. 

Matthews laughed his way to a third Rocket Richard Trophy with a career-best 69 goals and 107 points. Nylander ripped another 40 and threw down a career-best 98 points. Marner battled injury and was still well over a point per game. Five skaters scored 21 goals or more. Seven registered at least 40 points.

The one-year rentals of Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi, though slow to get revving, have made the top six more dynamic, more balanced, and — perhaps best of all — greasier.

Then there are the happy, small stories from within. Nick Robertson is finally healthy and can be a dangerous finisher off the bench in spot duty. Bobby McMann is a long shot who has come into his own. And Treliving targets Simon Benoit and Ryan Reaves are playing their best hockey at the best time of year.

Another positive: The Bruins are totally beatable, as they proved this time last year when they imploded against scrappy 8-seed Florida.

Boston is a middle-of-the-pack offensive outfit that cannot match the Leafs’ star power or scoring depth up front. The B’s centre depth took a beating with the retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, leaving them vulnerable to mismatches. Plus, their power play is inferior, and they ended their season on a sour note, losing to the lottery-bound Senators.

Now let’s touch on Toronto’s weaknesses. Or, if you’re listening to what Keefe is spinning: challenges.

The Bruins swept their in-season series against the Leafs, and leaders Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak salivate over this rivalry.

“They play very well defensively, and they have a lot of structure,” Mark Giordano says. “We have to go over X and O’s, and then it’s all about just being patient with our game.

“It’s going to be a hard-fought series. They don’t give you much, so we have to find a way to get in there and get some goals and scoring opportunities. More importantly, stay patient and know that we’re going to be in a lot of close, low-scoring games.”

Adds ex-Bruin Bertuzzi: “They play good as a team. Good goaltending. Obviously, they have some top players that can score goals. We’re excited to shut them down.”

Tall order.

Defensively, the Leafs rank 21st in goals against per game (3.18), second-worst among all 16 playoff teams. Their troublesome penalty kill rates 23rd (76.9 per cent), worst among playoff teams. And their goaltending-by-committee save percentage finished 24th (.893), second-worst among playoff teams.

In dropping its final four games of the regular season, Toronto gave up 22 goals. 

A milestone-hunting Matthews and checked-out Nylander each went minus-6 over the regular season’s final three games. Marner was minus-3.

Rielly was minus-6 over his two pre-playoff appearances.

Again: Depending how you tilt your head, you can view this splotch of a performance as a yikes or a yawn.

All stat lines reset to zero Saturday.

If you’re a Maple Leaf, you must view that as a positive, an opportunity to ignore both recent trends and historic failures. To pen a fresh script. Hey, no one’s served up a piping hot D-zone pizza yet.

“I think it’s just a different animal come post-season time,” Matthews says. “Everything that happened in the regular season kinda just gets washed, because it’s a completely new game and a new season in itself. 

“So, we gotta make sure that we’re prepared.”

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Of late, those preparations have been haphazard and cautious. They haven’t instilled overwhelming confidence. 

Right before the Leafs’ most recent skid, the cagey veteran Reaves issued a warning that echoes now: “You still gotta make sure that you’re playing like you’re in the playoffs. Because I know everybody says it — it’s hard to turn it on and off. It’s hard to just turn it on when you get into the playoffs if you’re not rolling those last 10 games. So, I think it’s really important to, not pretend, but to act like these last couple games are like a playoff game. And then just keep rolling into the playoffs.”

Maybe a dip in the Maple Leafs’ expectations is not such a bad thing, the forever believer will argue. Maybe the pressure on the players, positioned as underdogs this go-round, has been lifted. (Even as the pressure on Shanahan and Keefe — we see you, new MLSE president and CEO Keith Pelley — gets quietly cranked to 11 behind the scenes.)

Sports are wild and unpredictable. Momentum shifts all the time. That’s why we keep zombie-marching back for more.

Marchand is quick to argue that past series and old head-to-head results, good or bad, must be balled up and tossed in the garbage. This series is a new moment and must be lived in as such.

“It’s a clean slate for every team,” Marchand says. “Doesn’t matter how you did in the regular season. It all begins again. It’s about starting from ground zero.”

Heck, this same core has been told by critics and suits and their own fans that the regular season no longer matters anyway. So, perhaps we’d be foolish to draw too much value from it.

“I think everyone’s itching to play in the playoffs. It’s a lot of fun,” says rookie Matthew Knies. 

“You get to play for something a lot bigger than yourself.”


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