The Maple Leafs flubbed their first chance to finish off the Canadiens on Thursday, but two more opportunities remain. They have a 3-2 series lead as they take on their forever rivals in Montreal on Saturday, and if that one goes badly they will be back at home on Monday to try again.
They fell behind by three goals in Game 5 and ended up with an overtime defeat.
Toronto looked disinterested early on, mounted a furious rally and then lost within the first 60 seconds of sudden death to its much more motivated opponent.
The good news is that generally speaking, there is little carryover from one game to the next during the playoffs. If that were the case, this one would be over. After losing the opener, the Maple Leafs won the next three and appeared poised to advance to the second round of a postseason for the first time in 17 years. Then they came out as flat as a freshly ironed sheet. Already, some long-suffering fans are preparing to lower the lifeboats from the SS Toronto Torment.
Jason Spezza, 37, has played in the NHL for 18 years, appeared in 90 playoff games and has never won a Stanley Cup. But we are only nine days into this marathon and the Maple Leafs centre sees no reason to fret. It is all about the subtle adjustments teams make from day to day, Spezza said on Friday.
“You really have to live game to game,” Spezza said. “You start to understand as you play more playoff hockey that there really is no momentum. The playoffs are all about learning as you go along. Montreal came out more desperate than us [on Thursday] and now we have to move forward and have a response. That’s the beauty of playoffs. It is every other day and you continually challenge yourself and respond.”
Toronto allowed two goals in the first 8:18 of Game 5 to a team that had only scored four in the preceding four games. Montreal still almost blew it. The Canadiens got better goaltending from Carey Price than the Maple Leafs received from Jack Campbell. They took advantage of a few colossal mistakes. The margin was still razor thin.
Toronto won seven of 10 games between them during the regular season, and for the year that number is now 10 of 15. It would take a tremendous shift in fortune for there to be a monumental collapse – even for the Maple Leafs. They know it. Everybody outside of the Canadiens’ players, their parents and wives knows it.
Zach Bogosian has bounced around the league so long that he began his career in Atlanta. It took until last year for him to win a Stanley Cup, after a fortuitous move that sent him to Tampa. The Toronto defenceman looked unfazed on Friday as he discussed Thursday’s favourable performance by Montreal.
“That’s part of the playoffs,” said Bogosian, 30. After Atlanta, he played in Winnipeg and Buffalo. Not exactly the freeway to good fortune. “You have ups and downs. We controlled a chunk of the series, and then they had a good push back. You look around the league right now, and that is pretty much the way it goes.”
Nevertheless, Bogosian says the Maple Leafs need to go into Montreal and battle on Saturday night as though it is their last chance. Not leave it to luck in a possible Game 7. The team won both of its previous games at the Bell Centre. The only difference this time is that a limited crowd of 2,500 mostly batty Canadiens fans will be on hand.
Thanks to COVID, it has been 14 months since fans have been allowed into an NHL arena in Canada.
“It should be electric,” Cole Caufield, the Montreal rookie, said Friday. He has never played an NHL game in front of spectators.
Spezza shrugs that part off.
“The good news for us is that we have played in front of crowds before, so we should be comfortable with it,” he said. “In terms of just having people in the building, I think it is a great step towards what the future may hold. It will add a little more excitement to the game, which we welcome as players.”
Game 6 is here.
The Canadiens remain one loss away from elimination. If they don’t win, they don’t get a second chance. That advantage is held by Toronto – but the same was true on Thursday. Only now the leash is a little shorter.
“We know they are going to come out and be desperate,” Spezza said. “That is why we have to come out and match their intensity. It is important to learn from [Thursday]. We didn’t have the start we were looking for and that should be a lesson for us.”
It is the beauty of the playoffs. Or it can turn into a one-game beast.