The Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round playoff match-up has essentially been decided with a month to play in the regular season. That gives everyone some time for quiet reflection.
Which is never a good thing. It is especially not a good thing near the Leafs, where no matter how well things are going, every pause must be filled with low moaning.
Toronto will meet the Boston Bruins again in April – the third such meeting in the Leafs’ past four postseasons. Neither has any chance at catching Tampa Bay, and it is nearly as unlikely either will fall back into a wild-card spot.
This is becoming a regular spring fling between these two, just like you meeting up with your high-school pals to open the cottage. But only if your pals spent those days beating you up, dumped you in the lake and left without you.
This is where we pause normal operating service for a reminder to please refrain from using the NHL playoff format. It’s broken.
It’s not broken because it disadvantages the Leafs, but because there is a scenario in play wherein the NHL’s second-best team by points (Boston or Toronto) is going to face its third-best team (Toronto or Boston) from the off. The winner then gets to face the very best team in the second round.
That’s a Stanley Cup final, not the tuneup to one. It’s rolling in an hour late to a concert and being told that the headliner decided to switch things up and play first.
Why the league cannot just admit its error and move to an NBA-style, straight-up conference-seeding model (1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7 and so forth) is a mystery. But only if you don’t pay any attention to the NHL.
Some outfits are old school. The NHL is doing its best with preschool. The more pointless and convoluted the rules of the game, the better.
It does, however, give everyone time to analyze the match-up (i.e. rend their garments because everyone feels pretty certain Toronto cannot beat Boston over a seven-game series).
The Leafs won 3-2 in Edmonton on Saturday. There was very little to be taken from the game, but that never stops Leafs observers from trying. Is John Tavares ready? Is Frederik Andersen finding peak form? Is Morgan Rielly really Doug Harvey and we’re all just noticing now?
There’s going to be a lot of this over the next month. You can already see the players beginning to get that protective glaze over their eyes, as they attempt to ignore all the “But what if …?” questions to come. Good luck with that.
After the win, there was a lot of talk about bringing a “playoff mentality” to the team’s remaining games. People often say this as though it makes sense.
Try it at home – ask a loved one to stand behind you and say, “Run for your life.”
Now try it again with a stranger in a goalie mask and have them chase you with an axe.
There will be a marked difference in your speed, gait and determination that cannot be simulated with a “running-for-your-life mentality.”
We can’t know what the Leafs look like in the playoffs until they’re in them. The next four weeks are less than preparation. That might be the case if there were still something to play for. No, the four weeks will be time to sit around and fret about what everyone knows is coming.
Beyond the question of winning, this will be an existential moment for the team. The headline through 2018-19 has been ‘Getting the house in order’.
It has signed its marquee free agent. It has tied up two of the three players in its young core, and the last domino (Mitch Marner) does not have the look of a hold-out trouble-maker. The Leafs have got their goalie. They’ve made trades to tighten and toughen the defence.
The Leafs may or may not get better than they are right now, but they are a finished product. This is the team for the next five years.
What do you do once you’ve finished building something? You step back and assess it in relation to everything around it.
That’s where things start getting a little nervy.
The first obstacle is the Bruins, who aren’t young, but seem ageless. They aren’t getting substantially worse any time soon.
You could go up and down the rosters measuring this one against that one, but Boston clearly has an advantage in head games. The Leafs don’t yet believe they can beat them – not really – because why should they? They haven’t.
Then there’s Tampa Bay, who daily looks like its point of comparison is the Montreal Canadiens. Of the 1970s.
It is difficult to imagine anyone beating a team whose third-best forward is Steven Stamkos, which has Victor Hedman standing between you and the net like an Easter Island statue and whose goalie is still coming into his own and already arguably the league’s best.
The Lightning have the unmistakable feel of a dynasty and their window has only just now opened.
Everybody else is in the same boat, but with the Leafs there is always the added weight of history. People are fixated on this team, love this team and want very badly to believe in this team. But they don’t. Because they’re the Leafs.
Experience has taught every Toronto fan to be a doubting Thomas. And at a certain point, how can that not infect a dressing room?
Time to think is a curse for the Leafs because that thinking does not lead down bright paths. It gets you into the ‘Not this again’ headspace, which is the opposite of a playoff mentality.
What may sharpen their focus is the idea that if it goes wrong this year, the mulligans are spent. No more ‘Good job, we’ll get ‘em next year’ talk. People will start agitating for change of some sort.
And now that the team is built, there is no easy way to switch out some of the parts without beginning to pull apart the whole. Where would you start if you were them?
Think about the possibility that for a while. Say, a month.