Skip to main content
opinion

One of the last things the Maple Leafs have yet to check off on their postseason to-do list is Morgan Rielly.

The most likeable Leaf is having a weird year. Some people get out of bed angry on a Monday. Rielly rolled into the season snakebitten in September.

Were Rielly named Justin Holl instead, enraged fans would be building him a custom catapult outside the arena right now. That they aren’t is proof that hockey karma is a thing. If you stash away enough goodwill, people will pretend you’re doing great when you aren’t.

Guys who don’t hide when they’ve passed the game-winning goal into their own net or outrage the community get a one-season pass. Rielly’s such a sweetheart he might get two.

On Wednesday night, the old Rielly showed up. He had that offensive-zone giddy up that’s been missing most of the season. In his first shift, he put one off the crossbar. A couple of minutes later, he scored the Leafs’ only goal of the game.

Toronto lost to Colorado in a shootout, but it was a loss that felt like a win. Deep in the season, playing the champions on a Wednesday night in front of an especially somnambulant crowd – the sort of game you give up on in the third period and don’t feel bad about.

Having not done that, there was a gentle buoyancy in the room afterward.

Most of this year, Rielly has come out to do his postgame availabilities looking like it’s a duty he fits in between the ice bath and a vicious scourging. Not a lot of hope there.

But on Wednesday, he was tilting toward optimism. Someone asked the usual question about building on one evening’s success. Smart players know this question is a trap. The best they’ll usually do is toss off a “Sure” that’s meant to read as a “Maybe.”

But Rielly grabbed hold of it, agreeing with strong, affirmative nodding.

“This is an important time of year,” Rielly said. “We’re all trying to find the next level.”

It was an all-round sign that things are coming together at every stage and phase for Canada’s most profitable and least successful business.

Do you feel that? That sense of foreboding? That’s what happens when everything is looking up for the Leafs. Cue the Jaws theme.

Toronto has tried this every which way – youthful enthusiasm, big-time free agents, small-time free agents, a hundred different goalies, veteran savvy. It’s never added up to much. Late in every season, there is still always the sense that either the team isn’t ready or the opposition is. Often both.

This time the angle into the postseason lane is five-by-five. The Leafs aren’t great right now, but they have that sleeping-giant feel. They’re just good enough. Which means they aren’t frittering away playoff-type efforts in non-playoff games.

Even the injuries seem right. Ryan O’Reilly breaking a finger shortly after arrival would in years past be seen as a portent of doom. But now it’s the thing preventing him from breaking a leg instead. He’ll be back in time for a preplayoff tune-up, rested and ready to go.

Ilya Samsonov was the other Toronto standout against Colorado. The ostensible No. 1, Matt Murray, has been hurt so often this season that it’s taken all the fun out of any goalie controversy.

Two years ago, the Leafs would be in knots trying to figure out who to start in Game 1 against Tampa. Now that question is easy.

Then there’s the Leafs’ guaranteed first-round opponent. The Lightning are currently illustrating the whisper-thin line between experienced and tired.

Right now, Tampa looks like the Leafs through a funhouse mirror. Its record says the players are good. The eye test says they are slowly going sideways into a ditch.

No team in the NHL has played more hockey in the past four years. Nobody spent more time in the COVID bubble. Nobody has overcome more weight of expectation. The Lightning players have run their race, but they’re still getting paid to jog around. It shows.

What’s one more deep playoff campaign to this group? What would it prove? Tampa is already a minor dynasty. To become a major one, it would have to win another three or four Cups. How likely does that seem to you? More important, how likely does that seem to the Lightning?

The pressure to perform on the gulf coast of Florida is less than nothing. How much do you think most of the guys on the Lightning would give to have May off? They can’t say it, but you know a few of them have to be googling cottage rentals.

Is there any team anywhere that seems more likely to blow it this year than Tampa? That plus a general sense of confidence around the Leafs would hearten most executives. But this is the Leafs we’re talking about. When has anything ever worked out for them?

However much Toronto freaks out every time the Leafs blow it, the explanation has always been built in and preaccepted. The goalie’s no good. The players have never been here before. Star X and Y took the series off. John Tavares got his head put in a moving vice. The other team has that ‘It’ factor.

The excuses don’t excuse, but there’s a reason the Leafs feel freed to keep trying the same thing again and again. They know that people have accepted their explanations.

None of those apply this year. The goalie is good. The players have all been here before. Along with Star X and Y, the Leafs now have Stars A-through-D. The other team doesn’t have it any longer, whatever it is.

Most important, one round will do. If Toronto gets past Tampa to face Boston, the excuse – ‘It was the Bruins. What did you expect? Miracles?’ – is built in and preaccepted.

In their current iteration, the Leafs have never looked better than they do right now. Settled. Confident. Ready to go. Their opposition has never looked more the opposite of those things.

Elsewhere, that’s a positive thing. In Toronto, with its history, that’s the trapdoor in the floor waiting to swing open.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe