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Leafs Fans, You Have Permission To Panic

MONTREAL, QC - MAY 29: Jesperi Kotkaniemi #15 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates his goal during overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game Six of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell Centre on May 29, 2021 in Montreal, Canada. The Montreal Canadiens are the first NHL Canadian team to host 2,500 fans since the COVID-19 pandemic. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

This time was supposed to be different. Sure, the Maple Leafs have lost four postseason series in four years, and haven’t won one since before two lockouts ago. And sure, they haven’t won a Cup since—well, if you’re a Leafs fan, or have ever taunted a Leafs fan, you know since when. But curses aren’t real and history matters only insofar as players remember it and experience the memory as pressure. And these Leafs had roughly zero reasons to worry about a first-round matchup with the thoroughly average Canadiens.

In this abbreviated regular season, Toronto finished 18 points clear of Montreal, which actually finished behind two non-playoff teams. The Leafs scored half a goal more and allowed a third of a goal fewer per game than did the Habs. The four best skaters on either roster all wear blue and white. And, in a first-time development in recent memory, Toronto actually has the better goalie in the series, with Jack Campbell solidifying as a legitimate starter. The Leafs are good. The Canadiens are not. This should’ve been easy.

And it looked like it was! After a disastrous Game 1, the Leafs reeled off three wins in a row, giving them a cushion they wouldn’t appear to need. Yet they couldn’t quite take care of business in Game 5, erasing a three-goal deficit but losing in overtime. And in Saturday night’s Game 6, they played the hits: listless skating, disappearing stars, dumb penalties, bad decisions, wasted goaltending, a full-on mini-collapse, and yet another inexplicable turnover that led to an overtime goal, giving the Canadiens the 3-2 win and sending things to a Game 7 where all bets are off.

Both sides kept a clean sheet through two periods of notably sloppy play, which for Toronto you might attribute to being tight. Not for the Habs, though—I’m telling you, they’re just not very good. But in a span of a little over a minute, the Leafs had a micro-meltdown. It started when Corey Perry knocked home a loose puck from a comical scrum in front of the net for the Habs’ first power-play goal in the series in 16 chances.

Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe challenged the goal, arguing there had been goaltender interference. It clearly wasn’t interference—Campbell was so far out of the crease he may as well have been in Laval—but I guess it was worth a shot, since we’ve all seen softer interference calls than that wipe out seemingly good goals. But the officials upheld the goal, and the Leafs were assessed the automatic but controversial delay-of-game penalty for losing the challenge.

“We thought given what was happening in the game, the significance of the goal, I thought in the moment it was worthy of the challenge,” Keefe said. “And having the confidence in the penalty kill that they could get it done. But obviously, it ended up 5-on-3.”

Oh did it ever. On the ensuing penalty kill, Mitch Marner—who along with linemate Auston Matthews has been nigh on invisible in this series—took a delay-of-game call himself, for firing the puck over the glass for absolutely no reason and with all the time in the world.

“It’s a dumb play,” Marner admitted, and I, your humble blogger, have nothing to add to that. Tyler Toffoli would score on the 5-on-3 to make it 2-0 Habs.

But the Leafs would fight back! Possibly just to make their eventual loss that much more painful. Goals from Jason Spezza and with 3:11 left from T.J. Brodie would tie things up and send them to overtime. Where the Leafs dominated! They kicked butt! They skated circles around the Habs, because they’re faster and stronger and just overall better! (I really can’t emphasize this enough.) And yet twine remained elusive.

The Leafs outshot the Habs 13-2 over the 15:15 of overtime. Here was that second and final Montreal shot:

A brutal turnover by defenseman Travis Dermott, a solid snipe by Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and that is how we head back to Toronto for Game 7 Monday night.

In the absence of all the subplots on the other end, you might chalk this one up to Carey Price and his 41 saves showing he’s not quite over the hill yet. Or maybe you credit the Habs’ resiliency to the kids on the scoresheet for the last two overtime winners—Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, and Kotkaniemi, a combined 61 years of age—gaining confidence as they rack up experience, but not quite enough experience to know when they’re beaten. There will be time enough to praise the Canadiens if and when they complete this comeback, though you’ll have to drag it out of me grudgingly. Because I’m not here to “give credit where it’s due” or “recap the events of a ‘hockey game.'” I’m here for the sheer psychic panic infiltrating the Leafs fanbase, and perhaps, despite their explicit denials, the Leafs dressing room as well. I’m here for the melodrama, damn it.

“Don’t worry about what the fans are saying. It doesn’t matter,” Toronto forward Nick Foligno said. “This happens for a reason. Sometimes this is what catapults you. It’s hard for the fan base to hear right now, but we’re going to come with the mindset that we’re going to win a hockey game.”

They should win Game 7, too! But few folks still alive ever got rich betting on the Maple Leafs to see things through.