Maple Leafs’ Demons Are Waiting

The Toronto Maple Leafs have one team to beat, themselves. That’s been the truth for a few playoff series now. Still, the heartbreaking first-round eliminations pile up, and so have the demons. Assistant coach Paul MacLean said some of the most memorable lines during the Amazon docuseries, All or Nothing. During Toronto’s latest postseason collapse, cameras were there when the Montreal Canadiens came back from a 3-1 series deficit to win Game 7. “The biggest obstacle this team has is themselves,” said MacLean. That obstacle may have even gotten a little bigger with another year of doubts.

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

MacLean added a few more colourful words to describe the situation for the Maple Leafs’ players, “They’ve got to help themselves somehow,” said the 2013 Jack Adams Award winner. “They’ve got demons in their heads. They’ve got them in their car. They’ve got them under their f—ing beds. Everywhere they turn, there’s a f—ing demon.” And the demons are back.

Maple Leafs Following Lightning Journey

The demons for this group started in 2017 with a first-round exit, a trend that has continued ever since. “There is no doubt guys are aware of it,” said Sheldon Keefe. “We have been through a lot here. The guys have been through a lot, even before my time. The focus is simply on this team and this opportunity that we have here.”

The team Keefe refers to knows about that first-round humiliations. But, according to head coach Jon Cooper, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been there and learned from it. “We pretty much hit every record you could possibly hit. If you hit 62 wins in a season and you get swept, what is the first word that comes to mind? It is embarrassing. You look yourself in the mirror and say, “Do we really want this to happen? We have the group to do this, but this is what it takes.”

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The last postseason disappointment came with many calls for a complete overhaul of the front office and significant trades. But the same nucleus returned, and the front office remained intact, another similarity to Tampa Bay. “Kneejerk reactions are not a staple of our organization. Did we have to tweak some things? The thing that needed tweaking most was what was between our ears,” said Cooper.

Maple Leafs Need to Believe in Themselves

Perhaps there were demons between those ears too. Keefe sees the resemblance on his roster, “certainly, with this core that they (Lightning) have, they went through that, and they haven’t looked back since. We feel like we have been through our own difficulties and disappointments. We’re ready to come out the other side of it. Again, if we are going to find our way through it, we may as well start with the team that has figured it out.”

The Lightning have figured it out with back-to-back Stanley Cups and still going strong with another successful regular season. However, Toronto is confident they have what it takes to beat the champs. “The fact that we believe we can compete with anybody — we believe we can find our way through any situation and play the game any way you want to play it — are all important.”

Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning 2021 Stanley Cup
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning, 2021 Stanley Cup (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

The word belief has been on repeat since the opening of training camp. It had to be; after a nearly unbelievable collapse during the last postseason, this team needs to regain some confidence and start believing in itself again. After a rough start to the season, that message began to sink in. With almost every game, the confidence grew en route to a franchise-best season and several career-best individual performances. But demons don’t bother this group during the regular season. They linger and wait for just a crack of uncertainty to creep in, and they will strike and fester. Has this team finally slain the demons? We will know in about two weeks.

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