On the GO train into Toronto for the 7th game of the Leafs vs Tampa do or die playoff series, the mass of blue and white sweatered fans were clearly excited. But they were also nervous. There are no second chances after a seventh game, and years of disappointment weighed on the loyal passengers crowded onto the train. Perhaps they were afraid to hope too much, steeling themselves against defeat. The failure to close out the series on Thursday night in Tampa no doubt loomed large in everyone’s mind, conjuring the ghosts of the lost first round series of the psst.
In the event the Leafs’ season ended with a 2-1 loss. A goal by Oakville’s John Tavares, team captain, was disallowed on a dubious interference call against Holl, and fans in the arena were vocal about their disapproval of the refereeing. The ghosts were not exorcised, and we are left to wonder what it will take to break out of this repetitive exit to the golf course.
There are plenty of excuses: the weird NHL scheduling which has half of the top teams eliminated in the first round, putting the Leafs up against the two time Stanley Cup Champion Lightning right out of the gate, and depriving them of playoff experience; the suspect referees … but in the end the boys came up short. One excuse they can’t use is the fans, who cheered them lustily and urged them on the right to the final whistle.
The trip home was subdued to say the least, but thoughtful and reflective. The consensus was that the team had come out tight and nervous, like the fans on the train on the way in. They had taken too long to play with the urgency the situation required. They had waited for the perfect shot when they had possession, even on power plays, when if anything had been learned about Lightning goalie Vasilevsky, it was that he stops good shots: the best chance, the fans agreed, to score on Vasilevsky is to pepper him with shots and hope for a fluky bounce, a ricochet off a stick, skate or shinpad, in other words, a garbage goal.
When there is failure, someone is accountable. Players make mistakes … Kerfoot will lose sleep for a long time over his giveaway in game 6 … but no one plays hockey without making mistakes: in the end it was self-belief that made the difference. This writer thinks the team itself is strong, committed and skilled. Stronger, more committed and more skilled at the player level than the Lightning. Coming out flat and tense has to be laid at the feet of the coach. Unwillingness to shoot until the perfect angle on a goalie who always stops the perfect angle shot is again the fault of the coach. Championship teams have coaches who create self-belief and who adapt quickly to exploit the weaknesses of their opponents.
You can’t just put this down to bad bounces. On the GO train home from the game, the admiration for the players was undimmed, but the jury was still out on whether Sheldon Keefe is up to the job of coaching at the NHL level.