It can be very different, and yet not be. That’s what the Toronto Maple Leafs could prove in their first-round game with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Of course, there were the same squandered opportunities and plenty of mistakes made, now through six games against the Lightning. It’s possible that a similar team with less baggage and more obvious conviction has already passed the monumental hurdle that two-time defending – and therefore possibly imposed – Stanley Cup champions can present in this period of time. the year.
But unlike in the past, and even when the situation turned unfavorable, or fragile, even sometimes unfair, the moment did not seem too great for Toronto.
This has not been the case since the start of this match.
Sometimes it’s just hockey.
That was the case in Game 6, when the Maple Leafs had their first of two chances to eliminate the Lightning on Thursday night. Toronto played very well and in many ways rose to the occasion, but lost, failing in a third attempt to string together a winning streak against the Bolts.
Brayden Point made sure of that in overtime, scoring his second goal of the series in the dying moments of the first bonus frame.
If it were a leaf and not a dot, then we would be talking about immortality. It would be a where were you when situation. But instead of telling stories and reminiscing, a team and a city will now be forced to revisit its trauma as Game 7 on Saturday approaches.
It’s the kind of backdrop that threatens to make the most difficult task of the first round all the more difficult.
Again, this is a situation that seems unfair, as the Leafs are nothing like they were.
In many ways, Game 6 was marked as a loss for Toronto as soon as they restored their advantage in Game 5. Tampa Bay reinvented the meaning of resilience in their recent string of dynastic successes, bringing a record of 16-0 after a loss in the match. Andrei Vasilevskiy is an almost unbeatable goalkeeper with his back to the wall. Amalie Arena is no child’s play.
Still, if the Leafs weren’t the superior, freshest, hungriest, most inspired team in Game 6, they were unquestionably tied with the Lightning. If not for a few costly blunders, ill-timed infractions, and dodgy calls and no-calls from officials, the Leafs might have won the game and the series, on merit, in Tampa Bay.
Despite the loss and the teams continuing to alternate wins and losses, it looks like the Leafs are finding a stronger position as the series goes on.
It’s because what was meant to work for the Leafs is now.
John Tavares found a life raft and now ashore, having added two more goals to his tally in Game 6 after busting out two nights before. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner shrugged off the idea that Point and teammate Anthony Cirelli could stop them, continuing to score and tip the ice in key minutes, this last time on the outside ice. Jack Campbell answered the bell, the defensive core rebounded, and the fourth line looked as good as it had in minutes.
The list of positive points is getting longer and more precise.
All of that didn’t add up to the edge on the scoreboard the Leafs needed in the end.
Now, what seems to be the biggest challenge in Game 7 is that more and more traction can matter less. Because while the players themselves won’t be concerned with the demons, consequences, broken promises, and what happened the last time they failed to win an elimination match 6, and all the other stories that will be discussed in the marketplace, the pressure will be real and intense, and it’s human nature to understand that it could very well slip away.
Losing in Game 6 in a corner-flip scenario, it’s entirely possible that the psychological play is now the biggest challenge facing the Leafs.
And only after that will it be Point, Vasilevskiy, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and the best team the salary cap era has ever seen.
If the Leafs want to prove it, it will be the hard way.
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