As the playoffs begin on Monday there is no team in the National Hockey League with more enormous expectations than the Maple Leafs. There is also nobody with more pressure. Nobody with more to prove.
This looks like the best Toronto team in many years. It set franchise records for victories and points in the regular season. More than half of its players had their best years.
None of that matters now. The only thing that counts is erasing years of failure and advancing in the postseason. The last time it happened was 2004.
Tigers in the fall and winter, the Maple Leafs become toothless when the frost disappears. Auston Matthews was six years old the last time Toronto won a series.
And this first one will likely be even more difficult than any of the five that were lost over the past five years.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, the club that won each of the past two Stanley Cups, stand between the Leafs and the second round.
Thirteen players on the Lightning’s roster have won back-to-back championships. The last time Toronto won the Stanley Cup was 1967.
The Beatles were still together then. Lester B. Pearson was prime minister. Brendan Shanahan, the president and alternate governor of the Maple Leafs, was not yet born.
At least on the surface, however, optimism reigns.
“This is a team people have been trying to emulate the last couple of years,” Matthews said after practice on Sunday. Game 1 will be contested Monday night before a full house at Scotiabank Arena. “They have been at the top of the league so it is a great challenge for us right off the bat.
“[But] it’s not supposed to be easy. I know the guys in the locker room are excited.”
Toronto finished second in the Atlantic Division, seven points behind the Florida Panthers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy, and five points ahead of the third-place Lightning.
The teams met four times during the regular season and each won twice. Tampa Bay emerged from the last encounter between them two weeks ago with an 8-1 victory.
“If you are going to push through the obstacle that you need to get through, you might as well start with the best,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “These are the champs and any time we have been challenged as a hockey team this season we have responded really well.
“We have great respect for Tampa Bay. There is no doubting, arguing it or debating it. They are the class of the league at this point. They have proven it and there is no doubt our team will be ready for that.”
Tampa Bay has great offensive players in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, the NHL’s best goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy and a rugged defence that features Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergechev.
Keefe said he watched the Lightning’s last two postseason runs on television – and then rewatched them on video – and is certain that they will play with a mean streak.
“In the first round last year they definitely led the league in skirmishes after the whistle,” he said. “I expect it to be a very physical/borderline violent series in a lot of ways. Our guys will be ready for it.”
Over the past several months Toronto has upped its game physically and has improved significantly on defence with the acquisition of veteran Mark Giordano. Matthews’s 60 goals this year were the most in the league since Stamkos got 60 in 2011-2012. There is plenty more offence behind him in Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares.
Jack Campbell won eight of his past nine starts in the net after his return from a rib injury and seems to be back to his old buoyant self.
“He has played the way he did early in the season and that’s good news for us,” Keefe said. “He earned a spot in the all-star game for a reason and he is in a really good spot for now.”
Tampa Bay ranks with Florida and Colorado as probably the toughest draws for any opponent in the first round. Despite that, the biggest thing they may have to overcome is themselves. Their futile history and their doubts.
A year ago, they took a 3-1 lead on the Montreal Canadiens and then lost three straight. It was about as humiliating a defeat as one can imagine.
In 2019, the Lightning won the Presidents’ Trophy and then got swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round.
They haven’t lost a playoff series since then.
“We think there are some parallels there that are not uncommon for any champion,” Keefe said. “They went through that and we’ve certainly had our disappointments but I feel we are ready to come out the other side of it.
“We’ve been through a lot here but the focus is simply on this team and this opportunity before us. The challenge is great. That just makes the opportunity greater.”