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Leafs' chances

Toronto Maple Leafs take on Tampa Bay Lightning in first-round playoff action
1962 Stanley Cup Champion Leafs | Toronto Maple Leafs
1962 Stanley Cup Champion Leafs | Toronto Maple Leafs

Tonight's the night it all begins...our annual hope that Oakville's John Tavares captained Toronto Maple Leafs will go deep into the playoffs and, dare we think it, contend for the holy grail of hockey, the Stanley Cup.

In spite of winning the first game against Tampa last year 5-0, the Leafs did not advance past the first round...a perennial problem of late for this once-storied franchise that has dealt out heartache to its fans for over 50 years.

The Leafs' name and emblem were bestowed on them by Conn Smythe, a remarkable figure who built the once legendary team into a true dynasty and was perhaps the person most responsible for the central role hockey has played in the identity of Canada. Smythe had returned from World War I, where for the first time, Canadians had fought under the command of Canadians instead of being led by British officers. At Vimy Ridge and other major battles, the Canadians distinguished themselves by taking ground British and French troops had failed to take. In the final 100 days of the war, historians credit Canada with bringing the victory home. 

These troops fought with the Maple Leaf emblem on their uniforms. For Canadians, World War I was a defining moment in the coming of age of the country, and Smythe felt his hockey team could build on that sense of camaraderie and create a winning record. Mostly with Smythe as owner, the Toronto Maple Leafs can still claim they have the second most Stanley Cups of any team in the NHL, after the Montreal Canadiens, in spite of the 55-year drought. The Leafs' motto today, Honour, Pride, Courage, hearkens back to Smythe's legacy. 

In the Maple Leafs' dressing rooms of Smythe's day, the walls were emblazoned with the words: Defeat Does Not Rest Lightly on Their Shoulders. In the intervening years, there has been lots of defeat. Will this year be different?

I think you really have to like the Leafs' chances this time around. Their core four, Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander, are all healthy. They are coming out of the regular season with momentum, having won their last four games, including against their opponent in Round 1 the Stamkos-led Tampa Bay Lightning. They have added Stanley Cup experience and grit with Ryan O'Reilly and Luke Schenn, there is depth on defence and up front, and goalie Ilya Samsonov has had a stellar season. Nylander has demonstrated that he really comes alive in the playoffs, and the injuries the team has suffered have allowed some pre-playoff rest for some key players. This has been a successful regular season.

It's no secret that the playoffs are different. There is a story about a young Paul Coffey, after his Edmonton Oilers were eliminated, prior to their 5 cup run, by the New York Islanders, walking past the Islander dressing room and looking inside. What he saw was a bruised, battered, exhausted, injured, stitched-up yet elated group. It is said he turned to his teammate Wayne Gretzky and said: "So, that's what it takes." A more mature Oiler team went on to dominate the league. The key takeaway here is that talent is not enough. There are talented players on all teams, especially in the salary cap era. The key differentiators are grit and desire, with an element of luck.

Stanley Cup | Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash
Stanley Cup | Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

In 1962, when the Leafs won the first of four cups culminating in 1967, the average age of the team was 26. Almost the youngest player was Dave Keon, who was 22. Their success in that period came with maturity. At the risk of political incorrectness, men, not boys, win Stanley Cups. The three players still here and forming part of the core four today were about 21 in 2018 when their team battled back from a deficit against Boston to blow a lead in the seventh game. They are now about 26. Those 5 years have given them playoff experience and failures. There is no better teacher than failure. This is a team with something to prove, to demonstrate that it not only has skill but the kind of grit and character that makes hockey history. They have earned their spot in the playoffs and the home-ice advantage.

Interviews with players are often packed with platitudes, but it's clear listening to Leafs at the microphone that defeat does not rest lightly on their shoulders. There is maturity and determination in their voices. They want this. It is a long road to the Stanley Cup. What happens after this series is tough to predict, as the winner will very likely face the Boston Bruins, absolutely a powerhouse in the modern era, finishing the regular season with an incredible 135 points. But this series with Tampa Bay is not to be missed. We are going to see some fantastic hockey. With two strong offensive teams, it should be the kind of firewagon end-to-end excitement that brings fans constantly out of their seats—the kind of hockey Conn Smythe would have loved.

My money is on Toronto. Go, Leafs, Go.