In many ways, it feels like we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be. The slaying of the dragon was always going to come down to a Game 7.
United Forever#LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/oY9iLyo3F3
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) May 14, 2022
The Leafs and their fan base are back in an all-too-familiar position after letting an elimination opportunity slip through their fingertips in Game 6, but the way they got here this time feels much better, and there is something reassuring about it being the first one on home ice since 2004. Only time will tell if it will be enough to end the Game 7 curse against an opponent of his calibre.
One of the biggest positives the Leafs can take away from Thursday’s loss was their ability to control the puck and outplay Tampa from the start of the game at five-on-five during a clean run of even-strength play in the first frame, a rarity in a series marked by early penalties. Maybe Game 6 was an indication of what’s to come from the officiating crew in terms of their elimination-game standard, but the Leafs should be prepared for any possibility after six games that have had a bit of everything. It’s notable that a 5v3 goal, a shorthanded goal, and a 4v4 goal were what put the Leafs into overtime in the first place in Game 6.
The other hope for the Leafs is that the return to home ice, with a crowd that has been the seventh man on the ice for the Leafs during their two wins at the SBA and last change belonging to Sheldon Keefe, will allow the Leafs to find an edge on the margins, where this tightly-contested game — and series — will ultimately be decided.
The other encouraging sign was that the Matthews line managed to win its matchup on the road against the Cirelli-Point-Killorn line, scoring a goal against them to get the comeback started and finishing with a commanding control of the shot attempts.
With the advantage of home ice and last change in Game 7, the Engvall-Kampf-Mikheyev trio will take a wealth of defensive zone draws while they get the Tavares and Matthews lines the most kicks at the can in the offensive zone and exploit the odd mismatch where Keefe can find one.
Overall, the Leafs have been able to come out on top of the five-on-five battle thus far, winning on goals (12-10) and xGoals/60 (2.52-2.38). They’ve used special teams to their advantage at times in the series, but they’ve netted out in the negative overall through six games: The Leafs are 16% on the power play to the Lightning’s 23%, and 77% on the PK to the Lightning’s 84%.
A 2-1 edge in shorthanded goals closes the gap some — not to mention a pair of 4v4 Leafs goals in Game 5, if you want to consider it special-teams time — but a 5v5 game has generally favoured the Buds, and avoiding untimely penalties against a TB power play that can score timely offense with ruthless efficiency is going to be critical tonight.
You could argue it was a case of shooting themselves in the foot that cost the Leafs a chance to end this series in six on Thursday: a blind drop-pass miscommunication for a goal against out of nothing, consecutive high-sticking infractions inside 15 seconds of one another, a turnover leading to a shorthanded goal against. That said, it’s three games in a row now that the Leafs have fallen into a multi-goal deficit; as much as the Leafs have solved him fairly routinely in this series, with Andrei Vasilevskiy’s history of shutouts in elimination opportunities, that’s not the recipe they’ll be looking to replicate this evening.
Most of the stats are indicative of a series that will be decided on the thinnest of margins, but we can also usually throw the numbers out when it comes down to a Game 7. Often, the team that makes the fewest mistakes and gets a few bounces to go its way walks away victorious.
From the other dressing room, Toronto native Jon Cooper effectively captured what tonight represents to Leafs Nation and the hockey world at large:
The irony, right? Saturday night. Hockey Night in Canada. In Toronto. You’ve got the two-time champs. You’ve got a team rich with tradition and extremely popular in this country. These moments just don’t come around that often.
Taking myself out of the situation, it is must-see TV if you are at all a hockey fan or any sort of sports fan.
Try to enjoy this one, Leafs fans. We’ll see you on the other side.
Game Day Quotes
Jon Cooper on the benefits of his team’s experience in elimination opportunities:
You learn from experience. Experience doesn’t win you the game, but it sure can help when times are trying. You can’t let that moment become too big for you. That is a big message for the guys.
It is hard to say it is just another game because they are humans, but don’t let the moment consume you.
Cooper on the theatrics of a Game 7:
The sun does still come up tomorrow regardless of the result. I have been on both sides of it. The line Jim McKay used to use, “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” It really is that.
The sun will come up tomorrow, but you work so hard to put yourself in a situation. It is extremely difficult when you lose, but damn is it exhilarating when you win.
Sheldon Keefe on his level of nervousness entering another Game 7:
I don’t sense any nerve. Just excitement. This is as confident as I’ve been coaching this team.
The confidence is earned, right? Part of it is that through the whole season, we were right at the top of the league. We established home ice in a very difficult division and edged out this opponent for [it].
Through this series, both teams have been going toe to toe with each other. Both teams have knocked the other on their ass a little bit, but both have gotten back up and continued to go at it. We’ve been right there with the back-to-back champs. Our guys have grown a ton of confidence in knowing that they belong in this moment.
Keefe on why his team’s confidence is high going into Game 7:
It’s because of how we’ve played this series and how we’ve played against this opponent. Part of it’s how we’ve played all season long and responded to challenges. A lot of our confidence has grown in this series [as well].
You don’t know how the outcome of the game is going to go. The opponent is just as confident I think as we are. But where you’re [most] confident is that the players are going to be relaxed, they’re going to go out and compete, and play with energy. That’s what I’m confident in.
We’re going to give ourselves every opportunity to win the game.
Keefe on the mental approach his team is taking heading into another series-deciding game:
A lot of nerves are not nerves. It’s excitement. You want to go out and play. You know what’s at stake. You know it’s a Game 7.
The approach mentally has to just be that you’re just going out to play another game. It’s another game in this series. We’ve played well in this series. We’ve played well in this building.
We don’t need to make it bigger than it is. It’s big enough as it is, and we know that. That’s the reality. It’s unspoken. We’re just trying to keep things focused on what we can do as a team and continue to play the way that we have. That gives us a chance to win.
Keefe on why he chose to have a full morning skate today:
That’s what we’ve been doing all series. We’re coming off a day off — a travel day. We’re just keeping the same routine.
Keefe on whether he plans on making any tactical changes tonight:
In terms of the plan, I would stay the course. When it comes to a Game 7, both teams know each other very well. From that sense of it, there’s not a lot different.
There are other areas that we’ve been focusing in on that we need to continue to do a better job of both defensively and offensively. I think both teams have generated a ton of speed coming through the neutral zone in this series. The team that manages that best will have the edge tonight.
Keefe on Auston Matthews’ growth:
He’s established himself as an elite player in the league but also one that’s been through a lot. At this time of year especially, he believes in himself and he believes in his ability to go out and play.
Keefe on how big of an impact the Toronto home crowd will have on the game tonight:
All I can do is go off of what we’ve experienced in this series so far. To me, it has without a doubt made a difference. I expect it to be the same here tonight.
It’s going to be an electric atmosphere. Obviously, we have to follow that up with our play. Another source of my confidence is I know what our team is going to bring here today and I really believe in that strongly because of what they’ve shown us in this series.
I know that our fans are going to bring it tonight as well. For all those reasons, let’s drop the puck and get at it.
Keefe on how the team will prepare for the officiating tonight:
What’s important is that our expectation is that they’re going to call penalties. They’re going to call infractions. We’ve got to be responsible with our sticks. We’ve got to move our feet. We’ve got to establish body positioning.
At the same time, we cant get distracted and lose focus on how the game is or isn’t called. There are enough distractions and things going on outside of our control as it is. We just have to stay focused on our play shift to shift and not give the officials reason to call penalties.
Keefe on what he’s looking for from his team’s start to the game:
I think just getting off to a good start, no matter who scored the goals. We want to look comfortable skating and competing.
We didn’t get the first goal the other night, but I still liked the way that we were playing and continued to play. It was the same coming in here. It goes without saying that scoring the first goal sets you up in the game.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#56 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #64 David Kampf – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#25 Ondrej Kase – #11 Colin Blackwell – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#8 Jake Muzzin – #78 T.J. Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren
Healthy Scratches: Wayne Simmonds, Timothy Liljegren, Nick Abruzzese, Kyle Clifford, Rasmus Sandin
Injured: Petr Mrazek
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
#18 Ondrej Palat – #91 Steven Stamkos – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#17 Alex Killorn – #21 Brayden Point – #71 Anthony Cirelli
#38 Brandon Hagel – #79 Ross Colton – #20 Nick Paul
#14 Patrick Maroon – #41 Pierre-Edouard Bellmare – #10 Corey Perry
#77 Victor Hedman – #81 Erik Cernak
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #24 Zach Bogosian
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #52 Cal Foote
Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliot
Healthy Scratches: Riley Nash, Jan Rutta