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Years later, the Leafs are scarred by past playoff series

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Monday, April 22, 2019 – Page B9

After pooching it at home, someone asked Auston Matthews about history. Which is another way of saying, "Exactly how cursed are you? Fortune-teller-at-the-mall cursed or coven-of-witches cursed?" Matthews tried to locate his prepared speech. He was sighing so much he seemed short of breath.

"You ... um ... I think you can learn from those experiences," he said.

Evidently not. At least, not yet. But as you just knew it would, we're going to try that again.

The Leafs aren't just a hockey club. They're proof that time warps exist. They're in the midst of being sucked back into one.

Matthews was referencing Game 7s as a general proposition, and Game 7s against Boston in particular. This will be the Leafs' third kick at it in seven years. You will recall that the first two didn't go well.

If body language directly after a big loss is a fair measure of where someone's head is at, the Leafs didn't look great on Sunday evening. A lot of vacant stares and hanging heads. John Tavares kept repeating, "It is what it is," as though that explained things.

By comparison, Boston's Brad Marchand walked to his postgame news conference in bare feet.

"We gotta give ourselves some credit," Marchand said, which is quite possibly the most Brad Marchand thing ever said.

But he's right. They do.

In Game 6, the Leafs were fantastic for 10 minutes. Then Boston did whatever the opposite of rope-a-dope is and shoved the Leafs out of the ring.

Two quick goals and that was essentially that. It ended 4-2.

"I don't know if the emotions got the better of us," Toronto coach Mike Babcock said later. Well, that certainly bodes well for Tuesday.

Boston did not look emotional. Occasionally, it looked bored. Near the end of the second, Zdeno Chara left his feet in an attempt to use Jake Muzzin's head to cut a window in the glass. Having just attempted to kill a man, Chara wheeled away, utterly careless.

At this time of year, the NHL becomes the Boston Bruins' world. Everyone else just lives in it.

The psychic scarring of Toronto's two previous Game 7s have defined this franchise's recent history.

Game 7 in 2013 - the Collapse - destroyed what remained of the team's reputation and set the fanbase to open revolt. It took a few months to scorch the Earth, but the clearage was very close to total.

Everything the Leafs have now - Matthews, Tavares, Babcock, the Shanaplan, self-respect - is a direct result of that humiliation. Had it not happened, the Leafs might still be trying to sell permanent mediocrity as a grand vision.

Last year's Game 7 was less awful, but also less positive. It established the idea that the Leafs are soft and undermanned. It created the narrative of the "missing piece". If the Leafs lose again, there are two possible scapegoats - whomever screws up on the winning goal (please God, for his own sake, don't let it be Jake Gardiner) or Babcock.

The coach is trying very hard not to own the Leafs' penalty-kill problems, but it's not going well.

Toronto's special-teams confusion is so total, Morgan Rielly wouldn't even venture a guess at what's wrong.

What are they doing on the power play?

"I don't really know," Rielly said. They turned the momentum on you after that fast start. How did they do that?

"I don't really know," Rielly said.

There's no right thing to say now, and a whole bunch of wrong ones. Best to appear stupid, rather than open one's mouth and remove all doubt.

Forty-eight hours from now, Rielly will be either a goat or a GOAT. There's no middle ground.

Say they win on Tuesday.

The city goes bananas. After a few years of behaving reasonably, Toronto's habitual irrational exuberance about this team returns like air refilling a vacuum. All the goslow, baby-steps talk is now defeatist and, possibly, treacherous. The Leafs have shaken their demons and are poised to be greater than the 1977 Montreal Canadiens.

Say they lose on Tuesday.

Another round of self-flagellation.

Someone has to get fired - probably pinata enthusiast Nazem Kadri. Someone else has to get blamed - probably Babcock. His gold medals have earned him a charmed life in Toronto, but there will eventually come a point when people convince themselves that a generational coach is actually a complete charlatan. It's just the way of things.

In that scenario, the off-season is short and, by the time they're back at it, people have gone from loving being in the mix for a change to demanding immediate results.

The cry for change for change's sake picks up and the doomsday clock starts ticking.

It might be years before the blast, but you know it's coming.

The Leafs have floated on charm since Babcock's arrival. That was always going to end this spring. Once Tavares was signed, all the growing-pains excuses evaporated.

But this way - a Game 7 in Boston as a way to mark your progress - means that change in perception will be traumatic. By Wednesday morning, this team will be viewed quite differently, for good or ill.

On Sunday, Rielly got the last word. He just missed the first Game 7 disaster. Reputationally, he came out relatively unscathed from the second one. So he's allowed to have a sense of humour about this. Not everyone gets that freedom.

What's it going to take to win a Game 7 in Boston?

"Well, we're going to have score more goals than them ..." Rielly said. His comic timing is pretty good. People weren't sure at first if he was being serious, but Rielly gave it a couple of beats so they knew to laugh.

Once they'd stopped, his shoulders slumped a bit, he thought a little harder about the question and said, "I don't know." It was almost wistful. Don't worry about it, Morgan. This is Toronto. No one knows the answer to that question.

Associated Graphic

Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs bodychecks Boston Bruin David Pastrnak into the boards on Sunday at Scotiabank Arena.


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