Leafs hope to finally turn playoff script on back-to-back battle-tested champions

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As players set individual career highs and franchise records plummeted in 2021-22, Toronto never seemed to stray far from its collective resting heart rate, even during a faltering start to the schedule.

“We just try to go out there and give ourselves the best opportunity on a daily basis,” captain John Tavares said. “Anyway, we just want to go head-on.”

“There are always conversation starters floating around,” added sniper Auston Matthews. “There are only so many things we can control.”

The Leafs will look to continue down the same path with blinders still in place as they pivot to accomplish their toughest task yet – the two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.

“A huge challenge,” said Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe, whose team hosts Game 1 of the best-of-seven series on Monday. “But when I look at our group, I think the harder the better.

“That’s what we need.”

The Leafs finished the schedule with 115 points – 10 more than the previous franchise high – while their 54 wins eclipsed the old benchmark of 49.

Matthews became the first Toronto player to score 50 goals since 1993-94, then scored five more to set a new Leafs single-season record before eventually hitting an impressive 60 in 73 games.

Mitch Marner, meanwhile, scored 97 points, William Nylander scored a career-high 34 times and goaltender Jack Campbell earned his first All-Star appearance.

But those numbers and accolades, including the Leafs’ scintillating special teams, won’t mean much if Toronto are once again unable to get past the first round – despite their opponents racking up 110 points and finding themselves with the eighth-best record in the NHL. .

It’s simply the reality of a club that hasn’t won a playoff since 2004 or lifted the Cup since the NHL’s Original Six era.

“We know we’re in a special market, a special fanbase that’s going to add a lot of fuel for us and push us,” Tavares said. “That’s the special part of being here.”

The most recent playoff disaster, however, came last spring when the Leafs squandered a golden opportunity to change the narrative by allowing the underdog Montreal Canadiens to come back strong after a 3-1 first-leg deficit. round and pull off a stunning seven-game surprise. .

Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly said the players talked a lot about what happened over the summer and in training camp, but didn’t dwell on the nightmare.

“It’s a bit of a balancing act…you want to fix it and you want to learn from it, but you also want to move on,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in our room will remember this fondly unless we right the ship and achieve the ultimate goal.

“We hope we can look back and say, ‘You know, that was a big turning point for us. But until that happens, you almost want to block it and deal with it later.

Prior to the Canadiens debacle, Toronto did not appear against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round of the 2020 post-season bubble. This followed consecutive seven-game losses to the Boston Bruins – including including in 2019 when the Leafs had a chance to wrap things up at home in Game 6 and couldn’t.

“Everyone has experience and learns from the past, good or bad,” said Tavares, who suffered a frightening injury in Game 1 of the playoffs last spring and missed the rest of the series. “You have to grow from that, whether as a hockey player or even as a person.”

The Lightning, meanwhile, know a bit about the pressure their first-round opponent faces.

Tampa and its team led by Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2018-19 before being swept four times in a row by Columbus.

Instead of blowing things up, the organization regrouped, paving the way for back-to-back titles.

“There’s going to be a lot of hype in this round,” Lightning captain Stamkos said. “But our group is a mature group. We know how to handle a lot of different situations come playoff time.

“We will have to rely on our experience.

Something Toronto hopes to finally win.

“They understand how to play and how to win in the playoffs,” said Rielly, who leads Toronto’s improved blue-line body. “And we’re trying to figure that out.”

Veteran striker Jason Spezza, one of three Leafs along with Mark Giordano and Wayne Simmonds to go more than 1,000 games without winning a Cup, praised Keefe’s approach.

“With the failure we had last year, it would have been easy to look past the regular season,” Spezza said. “Sheldon has done a great job of keeping us on task, really game after game, week after week, finding key things in games, especially over time.

“We weren’t looking forward to it at all.”

Keefe said all the team has done this season — down to the smallest detail — is prepare for the playoffs.

The page is ready to turn. It remains to be seen if the Toronto scenario changes.

“We have absolute respect for the Tampa Bay Lightning in what they’ve accomplished and who they are,” Keefe said. “However, we have great confidence in our own group.

“We are ready for a battle.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 1, 2022.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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