Maple Leafs’ Ability to Handle Adversity Will Be Tested in Game 2

If you asked a Toronto Maple Leafs fan to predict the outcome of Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens, it’s hard to imagine anybody would have guessed things would go as badly as they did. The Maple Leafs actually didn’t play that bad of a game, but let’s address the elephant in the room. Losing your captain 10 minutes into the first game of the series is probably one of the worst things that could happen to your team to start a series. Especially in the manner that it took place.

It’s safe to say that just about every Maple Leafs, Canadiens, and hockey fan alike were frozen in shock watching the trainers try to stabilize John Tavares. After taking a hit from Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot, an oncoming Corey Perry clipped Tavares’ head on his way down. Tavares would leave the game, newly-acquired Nick Foligno would fight Perry to make a statement for his team, and the Leafs went on to lose the game.

The injury obviously shook the organization and their fan base as a whole. Players like Wayne Simmonds and Jack Campbell had shaky voices in their in-game and post-game interviews, and even Perry said he felt “sick to his stomach” watching the aftermath unfold. Obviously, it would have been nice to see the Maple Leafs respond with a win for their captain, but it’s also hard to imagine the team was in the state of mind to do so.

But today is a new day. The Maple Leafs have the comfort of knowing that their captain is okay, having been released from hospital yesterday morning and now recovering at home. And at this point, the ONLY mindset this team should have is to win it for Tavares.

Leafs Have Tough History in Big Games

I wrote an article a few weeks ago on how the Leafs’ resilience will determine their playoff fate. And boy, is that piece ever coming to fruition now.

Let’s talk about the Maple Leafs and their ability (or lack thereof) to get the job done when push comes to shove. A quick look at their track record since 2016-17 will tell you all you need to know. You could even include the 2012-13 playoff series against the Boston Bruins to back that claim up, although that was an entirely different team and set of circumstances.

I’ll also give the team the benefit of the doubt for their 2016-17 series against the Washington Capitals. Not too many people expected the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs that year, as it was sort of the beginning of the torch being passed to the new core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander.

Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews,
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner Celebrate a Goal (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

But then there was another first-round loss, and another, and another. That last one technically didn’t even count as a first-round loss, given that it happened in the play-in rounds. None of these were tight, hard-fought elimination games either. In 2018, the Maple Leafs had a 4-3 lead going into the third period against the Bruins. They lost 7-4. In 2019, once again facing Boston, they had a 3-2 series lead and lost two games in a row, allowing three goals in the third period to lose 5-1 in Game 7. Last year, they failed to even score a goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 5 of the play-ins.

Dubas Has Done All He Can

Each time they lose in the first round, the narrative that the Maple Leafs aren’t built for the playoffs grows more and more. At this point, general manager Kyle Dubas doesn’t really have anything left to offer. In Game 5 last summer, the Leafs’ defensive core featured Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, and Martin Marincin. This year, they’ve been replaced by T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian, and Rasmus Sandin. Throw in a healthy Jake Muzzin and this team’s defense is light years better than last year’s.

T.J. Brodie Toronto Maple Leafs
T.J. Brodie, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

Dubas also added just about as much veteran leadership as you can ask for. Four players that have captained teams before in Tavares, Foligno, Jason Spezza, and Joe Thornton, as well as guys like Simmonds who will take a bullet for their team if they have to. We know the team’s offense isn’t an issue, and goaltending has been stable with the performance of Campbell. The Maple Leafs are an overall stronger team than Montreal in just about every way, and there’s not much more you can ask of Dubas.

Leafs Have a Golden Opportunity to Lose Bad Narrative

So, let me ask you. With the Maple Leafs having their first date with adversity no more than 10 minutes into Game 1, is there any better time to shed the narrative that they can’t get it done when it matters?

I think about the reaction from the team after Tavares went down with his injury. How Spezza stayed right by his side, talking him through it and trying to keep him calm while trainers and doctors assisted him. How Foligno, who’s only played eight games with his new team, immediately fought Perry to respond to the hit. For what it’s worth, Perry’s role in the play was absolutely not intentional. I’m usually the first to call him for being a dirty player, but the two know each other from representing Team Canada internationally, and for those who say that he had a chance to get out of the way, you’re seriously underestimating the speed of an NHL game.

Did Foligno have to fight Perry? No, he didn’t. However, it’s not like the purpose of the fight was to get revenge on him. It was more supposed to serve as a morale boost for the Maple Leafs, sort of like saying “hey, I’ve got your back. We’ve all got each other’s backs.” Perry was okay with it. Foligno even made it clear that he was doing it for the team.

Getting back on track, competing in a playoff series against one of your biggest rivals for the first time since 1979 is just about the least ideal situation you could come up with. So, if that’s not enough motivation to win the series for your captain and keep grinding with even the tiniest of slivers of hope that maybe you’d be able to get him back down the stretch, then I don’t know what is.

Leafs Will Control Their Own Fate

I have no doubt that the Maple Leafs are sick of hearing about how they always fizzle out in the playoffs. I can’t imagine they want to go through another locker cleanout media session and answer the question of “what went wrong?” for the fifth time in five years. Especially in a season where the odds of them advancing in the playoffs are higher than ever.

So, if they want to shed that narrative, they have to this year. Every Stanley Cup-winning team has faced adversity in one way or another. Nobody’s trip to the Cup Final is a cakewalk. I’m not trying to sound like Tony Robbins here, but the Leafs have two choices when it comes to how they want to respond to this.

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They can fizzle out for the fifth year in a row and answer the same questions for the same disappointing end to the season they’ve had in prior years. Or, they can tighten up and win the series for their captain. That means no more drop-pass nonsense on the power play. No more taking three — count them, not one, not two, three — delay-of-game penalties and spending half of the third period on the penalty kill. No more shooting themselves in the foot.

This team has every piece necessary to take down the Canadiens in Round 1. I’d even say they have every piece necessary to win the Stanley Cup, but having the tools isn’t enough. They need to use their tools to build the final project that is a deep playoff run.

And they need to do it for their captain.

To win it for John Tavares.