You wouldn’t call it doubt, exactly. When it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, doubt is a given.
This is more like a foreboding. If this feeling had a soundtrack, it would be that moment in Jurassic Park when you first hear the dinosaur’s footsteps. They’re a long way off, but still.
On Thursday night, the Leafs were supposed to cement their new status as a stone-cold playoff killer. Having slapped the Montreal Canadiens around for four games, this was the moment to finish them off.
Instead, Toronto came out so flat you could’ve shoved it through a mail slot. Meanwhile, the Canadiens premiered a new approach. Instead of putting the puck around the net, they were going to try putting the puck in the net.
Montreal came at Toronto goaltender Jack Campbell early and in waves. The Canadiens had their first multigoal lead of the series after 10 minutes. They survived their own personal witching hour during the second period. They blew it in the third. Nick Suzuki pulled it out in the first minute of overtime. It ended 4-3, just like they drew it up in the pregame.
Montreal had a bunch of candidates for star of the game. Sadly, the most effective of them was Toronto defenceman Rasmus Sandin. He had one of those horror games Leafs’ d-men are renowned for – semiresponsible for the first Montreal goal and fully to blame for the third.
Thanks to Sandin, everyone else in blue looked mediocre, which was more than they deserved.
There is still no way the Leafs can lose this series. They’re still up 3-2. Only a couple of dozen teams in NHL history have come back from being down 3-1. The Canadiens do not look like the next one to do it.
As currently constructed, Montreal is Carey Price’s reputation, Shea Weber’s hard stare, Marc Bergevin’s fashion sense and that’s it. Take Thursday night’s soggy-bottom effort out of it, and the Leafs have been better in every aspect of the game, including mascot enthusiasm and quality of craft services.
Before the game, on Thursday morning, John Tavares came out to skate alone at the Scotiabank Arena. There are a bunch of other places in Toronto Tavares could have skated if skating was the point. He came out in order to allow himself to be seen by reporters. Which gets you wondering, “What’s he trying to say here?”
There is no way Tavares should play in this series. It doesn’t matter how long it goes or how desperate Toronto gets. Human heads have had less calamitous collisions with truck bumpers than Tavares’s had with Corey Perry’s knee in Game 1.
So why the public reveal? To prove he’s recovering? To nudge his employers into putting him back into the lineup? None of those things need doing.
You get the feeling that Toronto was in Tavares’s mind as he was skating loops. That the city needed to see the captain was close to coming back so that it didn’t begin losing faith if things went wrong on Thursday night. The camera kept swinging back to him, sitting up in the gondola in his civvies, during the game. Then things went wrong. In Hollywood, they call that foreshadowing.
The Leafs have a pretty close to unique problem when it comes to winning a hockey series – it’s been so long, no one believes they can do it. I’m not sure the team believes it can do it. The players know they can, because they’ve already spent a week spinning this Montreal team around until it’s dizzy. But the Leafs may not believe it’s possible.
The Canadiens must know it, too. They are at a disadvantage in every possible way, but for one – nobody expects them to win anything. Frankly, people were a little surprised they made the playoffs.
If we’re going to go all ten-thousand-foot-view on this, the worst thing that can happen to Montreal is winning this thing. That will convince someone in ownership that this roster, as currently constructed, has a shot. That’s an invitation to permanent mediocrity.
The Canadiens would have been better off in the long term if they’d bombed out of this season ages ago. A lot of people pushing that line are wearing red and blue.
That must grate on the players who are there. That’s another thing that you’d put in their favour. The Leafs are nervous. The Canadiens are irritated. I’ll take the irritated guy in a fight more often than not.
The day the Leafs want to avoid at all costs now is this coming Sunday. That’s the day after Game 6. If we are all still talking about the Leafs’ chances against the Canadiens on Sunday, this thing is headed into the ditch.
Forget about losing the mental game. That part of the series got evened up on Thursday night after Montreal came storming out.
If this is still going on Sunday, the Leafs will need trauma counsellors in the lockerroom. A few of them remember how it goes in Toronto before a Game 7 in a series they should have won already.
That’s a movie no one wants to see again. Nobody gets eaten in that one, but it ends a lot worse than Jurassic Park.