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PLAYING FIELD: Leafs hope to reverse recent history

Sports columnist says the Toronto Maple Leafs are at a fork in the road as they take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight in Game 7
2022-05-14 Leafs Game 5 PR 1
Opening ceremonies ahead of Game 5 of the first-round series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena on May 10

For an NHL team whose fans know all about long, painful journeys, the Toronto Maple Leafs have arrived at another fork in the road.

It can only go one of two ways Saturday night.

Even without the tragic comedy that has defined so much of the past 55 years, the Stanley Cup playoffs bring a resounding truth every spring: you never feel so good after a big win and so utterly deflated after a tough loss.

For Leafs fans, Thursday night’s overtime setback in Tampa Bay, and the dejection it left behind, erased the opposite feeling of Tuesday’s win at home.

I was there on Tuesday night, sitting behind the Lightning’s goal. The winning goal from Auston Mathews in Game 5 felt as though it unleased a tsunami of elation that perhaps only a walk-off home run in playoff baseball can rival when the stakes are so high.

Until Brayden Point scored his greasy Game 6 overtime winner two days later.

I was 30 feet away on Tuesday night and about a thousand miles removed on Thursday. Yet somehow, the sting felt closer.

So, here we are. Either utter joy will be in the air tonight at Scotiabank Arena and across Leafs Nation, or the darkness will descend. Again.

There really are few feelings like it in sports, or in life, where the margin between ecstasy and despair is so narrow.

The Leafs have looked awfully good at times in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Twice down by two goals against the two-time Stanley Cup champions, who have the best goaltender in the world, they have come back from the dead. It produced one impressive victory and a defeat that could haunt the hockey club and its fans for years to come.

Haunting a team that already lives in a hockey version of Amityville.

How we arrived at this point matters little. A win tonight could mark a new era, coming as it does after the pandemic created markedly different post-season scenarios.

A Game 7 victory would lend an air of authenticity to the belief held by some Leafs fans that the past two pandemic playoff failures  held without fans and in an environment more like a science-fiction film than a big-league sporting event  have an asterisk beside them.

The Mother’s Day massacre will also be forgotten with a series victory. If it goes the other way, many of us could be crying for our mothers.

At times like these, big-picture thinking and sober second-thought hide in plain sight. Win or lose on Saturday, the Leafs will remain a team that has two of the best players in the world in Matthews and Mitch Marner. That tandem will be together for years to come.

Willie Nylander is not everyone’s pint of lager – did you see him give up on that icing on Thursday? – but even his biggest detractors must admit that he’s a musician with the puck on his blade. John Tavares’s contract gives salary-cap gurus a rash, but it is difficult to argue with the moxie the captain has shown this spring. Or in previous ones when he didn’t have his noggin scrambled his second shift into Game 1.

Tavares and Nylander’s contracts help create the ongoing Leafs cap headaches, some of it their own making, but also because the collective bargaining agreement negotiated at the height of the pandemic created a new reality no one saw coming.

The Matthews/Marner/Tavares-era Leafs have also pitched a shutout (so far) in eliminating opponents, but do you really believe a team with so many pieces in place long-term could be spring patsies indefinitely?

Put another way, if you’re not a Leafs fan and assuming no one would ever know, would you not quietly admit they are in much better shape moving forward than most NHL teams? Maybe all but a few NHL teams?

The difference, of course, is that many NHL teams have had long playoff runs recently. Or at least won a playoff series.

Fair enough.

But one of those magical journeys is coming to Toronto. It’s just a matter of time and a point worth remembering whatever happens at the foot of Bay Street tonight.