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The Leafs Must Empty Their Minds Of Game 1

Ross Colton celebrates scoring
Michael Chisholm/NHLI via Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs couldn't win, even if they won. With a debilitating record of first-round failure riding their backs into another series against the Lightning, nothing they did would have chilled out their anxious fans. A definitive victory, like when they crushed the defending champs 5-0 in their first playoff game last season, would have just reminded everyone of the setup for a prior collapse. And a loss, of course, would tangibly decrease their chances of moving to a land of eight teams.

But the specific kind of defeat the Leafs suffered on Tuesday was worse than I think even the most pessimistic Toronto observers were ready to handle. The Leafs came out flat, went down 3-0, showed some almost-tangible hope, and then died a second death, eventually losing 7-3 after a perfunctory third period in front of a dwindling crowd.

This game featured not one, but two separate backbreakers at the ends of consecutive periods. In the first, with the Bolts already up by two, the Leafs learned a lesson that most in hockey had already figured out four years ago: If you must allow something on the penalty kill, don't let it be Nikita Kucherov with time and space in the circle.

But despite suffering a simultaneous pie to the face and knee to the groin in the opening 20 minutes, the Leafs did come out of the dressing room refreshed and ready to take advantage of some opportunities. In each of Toronto's first two power plays of the game, their superstar forwards combined to create an energizing goal. Rewatching the William Nylander shot that made it 3-2 earlier this morning, I almost believed the Leafs were going to rewrite history and pull off the comeback.

A morale-killing six-minute stretch ambushed the Leafs, however, and all but ended the game. David Kampf took a light slashing call that led to a Brayden Point goal, then Michael Bunting went high with his wing on Erik Cernak and earned a player safety hearing. Corey Perry stuffed the puck into the net to make it 5-2, then the Leafs lost their challenge and got saddled with another penalty. Technically, they killed the 5-on-3, but before Toronto could escape to intermission, Point reemerged to slip the puck through Ilya Samsonov's open legs. (The Leafs goalie would get replaced by Joseph Woll for the final period.)

“It’s a hard one to explain, no doubt,” Leafs captain John Tavares said afterward. “We’re disappointed.”

On Tuesday, after fellow Canadian underachievers Edmonton fell apart at the end of their 4-3 overtime loss to the Kings, I had some encouraging words for the overall quality of the Oilers' play. The Leafs could also, in theory, buck themselves up with a few positive conclusions, namely the fact that their penalty woes are not likely to be repeated and they ultimately tied the Lightning on expected goals.

That kind of thinking would be a mistake. In both the first period and the back half of the second, this game looked like a roster blindsided by the intensity of the playoffs wilting before a group that's practically built a second home in this tournament. The Leafs didn't find the on switch until it was too late, putting just three shots on goal in the game's first eight-and-a-half minutes. They entered both breaks flattened by the Lightning's late momentum and their own failure to close. And even if you don't want to point at the entire team for that destructive power play flurry, Bunting's penalty, Samsonov's permeability, and the way the Lightning orchestrated some frighteningly good chances for their best scorers almost at will all indicate a lack of composure that needs to be fixed yesterday.

The Leafs are a fine team, with talented forwards, a deep defense, and a goalie who's usually much better than what we saw in Game 1. They can win four out of their next six, if they let go of what just happened and come out sharp next time out. Game 2 has to be a fresh start, untainted by the mental damage of Tuesday, or the last six years, or the last 56. They have to just pretend it never happened. And maybe pretend that they're an expansion team that's never let anyone down.

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