Maple Leafs enter Game 7 without history on their side
The whopping contract John Tavares signed last July in Toronto made no specific mention of April 23, 2019. No clause referenced Causeway St., tulips blooming in the Boston Public Garden, or a decisive Game 7 with the Bruins.
It was simply understood, unspecified intent.
The Leafs stuffed $77 million into JT’s pockets specifically for nights like Tuesday, when the Garden will be jacked, while at the same time the odd 2-3 million Torontonians will be on their knees back in southern Ontario, praying to the hockey heavens that their souls aren’t shredded again in a Game 7 in the old West End.
Tavares, a Toronto kid himself, was hired on by the Leafs to be the ballast, the bonding agent, the insurance policy for a series like this that will end, one way or the other, sometime after 9:40 p.m.
The Leafs will go on to glory, perhaps on the broad shoulders of Tavares, or they’ll again be fed to the Blue-and-White masses for a summer’s worth of, shall we say, deep introspection (a fancy word that means “being roasted at the spit”).
Thus far, the postseason returns on Tavares have been mixed.
After scoring a career-high 47 goals in the regular season, third best in the league, the ex-Islander has knocked home but one goal in six games while centering the club’s No. 1 line in the first-round series. Both Tavares and Bruins bottom-sixer Joakim Nordstrom have potted one goal, each scoring into an empty net. For all the minutes Tuukka Rask has fronted the Boston net — 354:31 of a total 360:00 — Tavares has been blanked.
Faceoff is Tuesday night, right around 7:15 p.m. Tavares is long overdue. The Leafs, without a Cup since 1967, also are long beyond the point of reason and civility when it comes to beating the Bruins in the playoffs. It hasn’t happened since 1959, back when we liked Ike, a good seat at the Garden ran maybe $5, and a 24-year-old John Bucyk paired up with Vic Stasiuk and Bronco Horvath on Boston’s Uke Line.
Sixty years later, just like then, everyone wants a prediction, of course.
Will Tavares wake up and deliver on his deal, carrying the Leafs to a Round 1 matchup with Columbus?
Will the Bruins build off their impressive Game 6 win, 4-2 Sunday in Toronto, and knock the Sisyphusianistic Leafs into summer for a third time in seven seasons?
Good luck with the prognostications. The six games to date should have taught all of us that lesson, again. The two clubs have toggled back and forth on the W’s and L’s, neither one able to string a pair of wins, including on Sunday when the Leafs had the series right there on their sticks, before a blue-and-white ocean of a home crowd, to clinch.
The Leafs went up, 1-0, on a Morgan Rielly strike midway through the first. All good. But not for long. Instead of finding traction, the Leafs spaced out, cobbling together only four shots over the 20-minute span that followed the Rielly goal.
Meanwhile, with the young Leafs in nap time, the Bruins popped in a pair of power-play goals (Brad Marchand, Torey Krug) to move out front, 2-1, by 17:02 of the first, followed by Jake DeBrusk’s 3-1 jawbreaker at 7:57 of the second. The long, inexplicable slumber from midway through the first until midway through the second delivered the Leafs to Tuesday.
“Bottom line, we weren’t as good as we could have been for a stretch of 30 minutes there, for sure,” said a miffed Mike Babcock, hired in 2015 as the guy to steer his team through a big Game 7.
The Bruins on Sunday, noted Babcock, were the better skating team, particularly over that dead stretch.
“And that,” said Babcock, “doesn’t happen to us very often.”
It will be legs and emotion and poise, rather than history of course, that will carry the day in Game 7.
What we know at this point is that the Leafs, with their young speed and skill, have yet to allow the Bruins to hold a lead in the series. The Bruins had to erase series deficits of 0-1, 1-2, and 2-3.
Somehow that doesn’t square with the fact that Bruins, largely because of a blistering power play, have held a significant edge in lead time (160:15 vs. 67:53). Toronto, though rarely ahead on the scoreboard, has made the most of its advantages, thanks in large part to their stouter, smarter 5-on-5 performance.
For what it’s worth, if anything, we know history is the Leafs hobgoblin. And Game 7, 2013, is their haunted house with an attic full of rabid bats.
The Leafs that night (May 13) moved to a 4-1 lead midway through the third and then became the first team in Stanley Cup history to blow a three-goal lead in Period 3 of a Game 7 and lose. Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic, and Patrice Bergeron (19:09, with Rask pulled) strung together the equalizers, followed by Bergeron with the dagger through the ribs 6:05 into OT.
The Leafs Tuesday night will dress but one player, defenseman Jake Gardiner, who participated in that 2013 soul-crushing debacle. The Bruins will have Rask back in net, with the core group of David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, and Bergeron still on the job, still poised, still remembering.
“I thought we were ready,” Babcock said after the loss Sunday. “But as soon as we had a little adversity . . . I don’t know if the emotions got the better of us, but we couldn’t get ‘er back in check.”