The needle in this 180-degree series swung back in the last two games and is now pointed directly at the Boston Bruins.
And you can’t help but think their collars are getting awfully tight after the Toronto Maple Leafs forced the seventh and deciding game on Monday night with back-to-back 2-1 wins to roar back from a 3-1 series deficit. The Boston media is certainly whacking them over the head with reminders of their 2010 NHL playoff collapse when they blew a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers along with a 3-0 lead in Game 7 and lost the Eastern Conference quarter-final.
Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who has been marvellous in this series but was minding the net for that Philly fiasco, certainly doesn’t want to hear about it anymore.
“You know what, I don’t even want to talk about that,” he said. “This is the playoffs and we want to focus on that. We haven’t played well enough to close out the series.”
Monday’s game, Rask added, “is the final chance. It’s one game [to] decide the season. We have to play our best game of the year.”
But the omens are lining up in the Leafs’ favour, from the minor – forward James van Riemsdyk, who is playing so well in this series, also had a prominent role in the 2010 Bruins debacle when he played for the Flyers – to the major – the Leafs have smashed the hex the Bruins held over them and Phil Kessel since he was traded by them to the Leafs in September, 2009, especially in Boston, where they could never win. Now they will play the final game in Boston with two of their wins in this series at the TD Garden.
Actually, that hex over the Leafs goes back a lot farther than four years ago when Zdeno Chara began smothering Kessel, who broke free with two game-winning goals in this series, including Sunday’s when he materialized in a traffic jam to fire a loose puck into the open side of the net.
“I don’t know where Kessel came from,” Rask said. “I didn’t see him. It looked like he had a lot of speed. He toe-dragged it in. I had no idea he was there. I was ready for the rebound and he whacked it.”
The goal gave the Leafs their first win at home in a playoff game against the Bruins since Mar. 31, 1959 when they won 3-2 in overtime.
Now the Bruins have to deal with a growing list of problems, starting with their offensive production. In the first four games of the series, the Leafs choked off the Bruins’ No. 1 line of centre Patrice Bergeron and wingers Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin. But that was okay as long as the No. 2 unit of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton was crashing, banging and scoring.
However, in those two Leaf wins, the Bruins were held to two goals, with the Krejci line getting awful quiet as well. Lucic scored in Sunday’s loss but that was the line’s only goal in the last two games.
Bruins head coach Claude Julien was pretty quiet on the matter, too.
“I have no comment on my lines,” he said after Sunday’s game.
By the end of that game, the Bruins looked tired and slow, showing the effects of a wonky lockout-shortened schedule that saw them play 20 games in 39 nights, with this series ending in back-to-back, road-and-home games for them.
Adding to their troubles were mechanical problems with the aircraft that was to fly them home Sunday night after their loss. Instead, the Bruins had to find a hotel in Toronto and return home Monday morning.
This may not sound like an earth-shattering disruption given the short flying time between Toronto and Boston but professional athletes are creatures of habit. They regard any disruption of their routine as a major aggravation.
If the Leafs pull this off, it will be the only time they came back from being down 3-1 in a series since the 1942 Stanley Cup finals. The Detroit Red Wings took a 3-0 lead on the Leafs, who came back to win four straight and the Cup.
However, these Bruins are still not exactly the 2002 Ottawa Senators, despite their recent history of playoff collapses. Rask is no Patrick Lalime, who famously let in those Joe Nieuwendyk goals in one of the more famous NHL choke jobs.
This will be another white-knuckle ride for the Leafs, just like the last two games. But that means a lot of excitement lies ahead.