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Redemption will have to wait

Leafs fall short in their first chance to clinch the series
Fans try to will victory in the dying minutes, standing, cheering and waving towels in unison. | Oakville News
Fans try to will victory in the dying minutes, standing, cheering and waving towels in unison. | Oakville News

This was the first chance this year for the Leafs to exorcise their demons, slay the ghosts, and clinch a playoff series, something they have been unable to do in spite of talented stars and depth for a very long time.

Morgan Rielly scored to put the Leafs on the board first. The enthusiasm of the crowd was unbridled. 

Unfortunately, the team fell into that classic trap of vulnerability immediately after a goal, and Tampa Bay replied within eight seconds. For a few minutes, this fairly sucked the oxygen out of the room. Another Tampa Bay goal led to a pull-the-goalie effort that let Auston Matthews bring the game within one, but the tying goal never came, and with seconds left, Tampa scored on the empty net. 4-2 Lightning.

Tampa had the better of the play for much of the game. That was the case in Tampa for games 3 and 4 as well, but somehow the Leafs managed to find a way. Not tonight. 

Watching them, we know it is not work ethic, sense of urgency or talent they lack. Of course, Tampa is a playoff juggernaut. But this Leaf team has the ingredients to beat them. They did so in the regular season.

But this is the playoffs. When the Leafs have possession in the opponents' end, they seemed, at least in the first stages of the match, to want to set up the perfect scoring opportunity. "Shoot, for the love of all that is sacred in this hallowed place," you want to shout. (Well, approximately.)

Playoff goals are rarely pretty. Most involve lots of traffic in front of the net, a puck that takes weird bounces after being hacked at and deflects in without much elegance. Or, someone fires a puck through a crowd, and it looks like it has laser guidance until it is behind the goalie, who was screened and saw it too late or not at all.

No traffic in front of the net | Oakville News
No traffic in front of the net | Oakville News

This is not a lack of grit or ability or effort. This is using the wrong tactics for the situation. Is that a coaching or a player problem? The team was outplayed for much of the game, but the crowd support did not flag. You really needed ear protection in the dying minutes as the fans tried to will the puck into the Tampa net with hoots, hollers and chants. 

Leafs Fans
Leafs Fans' Emotional Cycle | The Beaverton

This image shows the cycles Leaf fans go reflects the feelings after game 4. After game 5, the disappointment has returned.

The fear of a repeat of previous years' failures after coming once again so very close was palpable as fans left the rink. 

The Leafs get two more chances to win this series, the first being Saturday in Tampa Bay. Send them good vibes. They are giving their all and will need all the positive energy the universe can send their way against this team.