A quick mix of things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less serious, and rolling four lines deep. The two best words in sports, baby: Game Seven.
1. Sheldon Keefe looked almost like Yoda before flying to Toronto on Friday for the most important coaching assignment of his life: “The feeling in our team is one of great confidence.”
Could the Tampa Bay Lightning, chasing three rounds, deal a deathblow to that confidence on Saturday night? Sure.
But here are seven reasons why Keefe is right to see the bright side. Win, they must.
• The Maple Leafs’ best players have been their best players. Everyone with a letter, everyone who’s signed a contract worth at least $6.9 million a year, everyone who’s had five consecutive streak losses has raised their game and produced on the board on board. The Core Five (no, it doesn’t rhyme, yes, Morgan Rielly is just as integral) has made its appearance.
“Our team is unique and different. Our best players perform at critical times and play well as a group,” Keefe said.
“To face back-to-back champions, we believe our best players thrive. I always feel that this team has a lot of fight.
• Andrei Vasilevskiy was beaten. Granted, Conn Smythe’s winner looked global when beleaguered late in Game 6, but the Leafs have pumped at least three pucks past him in every game of this series. If his .885 save percentage is any clue, the Big Cat’s crazy five-game shutout streak in closing games could be in jeopardy.
• The Leafs hold the last substitution. Much like the special teams, home ice was absolutely a factor in this airtight battle. The team in blue beat the team in white 4-2. This is where the winningest regular season in Leafs history can pay off.
This group has never played a series deciding game in front of a packed home crowd, and if Games 1 and 5 are any indication, the positive noise could be influencing here. More important: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will be able to avoid Tampa’s superb Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-Brayden Point match unit more often.
Historically, the home teams are 107-77 in Game 7.
• Jack Campbell has more to give. Yes, he has a slightly better shutout and save percentage than his counterpart. But we have yet to see the best version of Campbell (.893). We also haven’t seen him at his best at the start of the last three outings.
Redemption is on the table. Call from the face-off, save the other guy and he can snatch it.
• Penalties shouldn’t be the story. Clever decision by Leafs players not to comment on costly Game 6 officiating. Smarter decision by Keefe to sympathize with umpires, noting they didn’t have slow-motion replay advantage on phantom high stick of David Kämpf and the nod of Cal Foote.
We bet the stripes will “let players decide” a do-or-die deal. On the contrary, they may think they owe the Leafs a call.
• Let’s be honest: the Maple Leafs need it more. And it showed in their refusal to wither in the face of 2-0 deficits in Games 5 (a comeback win) and 6 (an OT thriller they could have grabbed).
Keefe admits his favorite group entered Game 7 against Montreal and Game 5 against Columbus on “a downer” based on their performance in losses. This time they’re hanging right there with a far superior enemy.
The Lightning have an opportunity to do something great, lead the roster again and become the first three-time champion since the Islanders of the early ’80s. What if they don’t? Well, their consolation prize is a vacation and status as the best franchise of the Cape Town era.
Imagine the Leafs showing up to training camp in September and looking at all the faces of guys who have lost six straight playoff series and failed to knock out an opponent on nine straight occasions.
• A victory could be a catapult. Look around the East. Who’s scarier or healthier than the Bolts? The Maple Leafs (knock on wood) are just as healthy (Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren skate on fourth pair) and, we would say, deeper and more consistent than any other team in their conference.
2. The individual games haven’t all been close, but the Leafs-Lightning series has been neck and neck in almost every way.
After 378 minutes of intense hockey, the Lightning hold a slight advantage in shot attempts (352-345), shots (190-185) and scoring chances (210-194).
The Maple Leafs have the upper hand in expected goals (19.82-19.24), high-risk chances (81-75) and actual goals (23-21).
“Not much between the two teams,” Keefe said.
In other words, neither team should feel like they’re getting anything better than a 3-3 series stalemate. “Ref! You! Suck!” the chants rang out just as loudly at Amalie Arena for Games 3, 4 and 6 as they did at Scotiabank Arena for Games 1, 2 and 5.
In a sport that can be sorely unfair, this Game 7 is deserved.
“It’s a bit of a punch for the shot,” Matthews says. “The hardest game to win is the last one. This is a very good opportunity for our group to seize the moment.
3. Count me among the thousands struck down by the shooting of Barry Trotz.
Job offers have already started pouring in.
If Trotz wants to come back directly behind a new bench, he’ll be the most courted man since Toronto outbid Buffalo for free agent Mike Babcock.
A hunch: He’s waiting for a few strong playoff teams to lose early. In other words, don’t just focus on clubs with currently vacant positions. Others could come.
PS Regardless of who hires Lou Lamoriello as the Isles’ next coach, Mathew Barzal’s fantasy value just went up.
4. Lightning coach Jon Cooper was asked to choose from among the Hart Trophy finalists: Matthews, Connor McDavid and Igor Shesterkin.
“It’s tough in this league to score 60 goals,” Cooper replied. “Anyone of them can win. But to score 60 is to score 60. That’s pretty good.
Matthews became the first Leaf in 79 years to finish in the top three in Hart voting in consecutive seasons (Syl Apps, 1941-42, 1942-43).
“It’s a great honor, but right now obviously the focus isn’t on that,” Matthews said.
Keefe points to Matthews’ 5-on-5 score — “the hardest thing to do in our game” — as the most impressive aspect separating him from the pack.
“He’s doing it at a pace that no one in the game has been able to keep up with for the past few years,” Keefe notes.
I had Johnny Gaudreau third on my ballot and was slightly surprised that Roman Josi finished ahead of Gaudreau for the Ted Lindsay.
I can’t remember a season with so many people worthy of finalist status.
” My God, [Jonathan] Huberdeau’s name is missing from this list,” Cooper added. “Johnny Gaudreau is plus-1,000. He probably could have been in there.
5. Very cool. TNT’s Wayne Gretzky participated in the voting for the trophy as one of the few broadcasters selected to join professional hockey writers in the process.
To PWHA’s knowledge, this is the first time in the award’s 98-year history that a true Hart winner (nine times no less) will have a say in who hoists it.
All votes will be made public after the award ceremonies.
Gretzky’s ballot might gain a few more page views than mine, but I’ll tell my grandkids I was once even at 99.
6. For all the hype and hoopla around the trade deadline, there hasn’t been a better mid-season acquisition than Ken Holland’s much-scrutinized signing from sudden UFA Evander Kane.
Kane’s hard-hitting late run on the Oilers’ top six only gained momentum in the playoffs.
The guy co-leads all scorers with seven. Count them on your fingers.
7. The most incredible part of Darryl Sutter’s brilliant (if wild) prediction that playing the Colorado Avalanche in the first round would be an “eight-day loss”?
The Nashville Predators ended in seven.
8. Paul Maurice left Winnipeg with his head held high. In no time, right before the building explodes – like some sort of dry-witted action hero.
Sources say Maurice could have already signed elsewhere but, for now, he is content to take a breather.
As a lover of good quotes and strong personalities, I selfishly wish Maurice would come back into the game.
9. “Your face looks like a baby.”
ten. We’ve reached Game 7 of the most publicized series of these Stanley Cup Playoffs, and central characters Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov have yet to speak to reporters because they’re Russians.
11. Oiler has become a go-to podcaster and adult lemonade czar Ryan Whitney tweeted a fiery opinion when Michael Bunting was announced as Calder’s finalist:
“Lucas Raymond has scored the same number of goals as Bunting, only 6 points less, is 6 years younger and hasn’t played with Matthews and Marner. It’s a joke.”
Bunting, 26, takes down age jokes and Billy Madison memes.
“I hear a lot of it, but it doesn’t bother me. I qualify as a rookie, and that’s it,” Bunting said. “I just laugh about it all. I cut out all that kind of noise. I’m just having fun with it.
There’s no denying that playing on a front row guarantees easy points, and the determined Bunting has earned that position, coming up from the fourth row.
“The second he signed here, he was in the building every day doing the job,” Jason Spezza said. “It’s not by mistake that he had the year he had.
“He realizes how much harder it is probably than anyone here. He spent a lot of time in the miners working to get to this point. And then when he got that opportunity, it was his – and he wouldn’t let her go.”
Points aside, Bunting was a beast at taking penalties — a valuable trait when helping put the NHL’s most dangerous 5-on-4 unit on the ice — and was less of a defensive liability than Raymond.
Typically, he is a rookie and therefore worth considering. He was on my ballot.
Detroit’s Moritz Seider will likely win the award.
Full disclosure, I also had Tanner Jeannot of Nashville ahead of Raymond. Love the edge in this kid’s play.
12. It’s Saturday.
The sun is out.
A Match 7 triple header is on tap.
Hockey’s top two players are on fire and under fire, and a future Hall of Famer might be playing for one last chance to go further.
Nights like these, sports fans, don’t come often.