The Maple Leafs have come back. Now, for once, it’s time to finally finish the job

With the obituaries already written and the pink slips all printed, the Toronto Maple Leafs have flipped the script. After dropping three of the first four games and losing their best player in the process, the Leafs have gutted out a pair of 2-1 wins to force the Boston Bruins into a nightmare Game 7.

Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be.

The conventional wisdom is that this version of the Leafs team disappears when the going gets tough. But the conventional wisdom is wrong.

Never let facts get in the way of a narrative, I suppose, but let’s think back to some times during the Brendan Shanahan era when this Leafs team had their backs against the wall.

In 2018, against the Bruins, a young Leafs team fell behind 3-1 in the series, outclassed and outscored 15-5 in the losses. They fought back, winning two straight to force a Game 7 back in Boston, then took a lead into the third period.

In 2020 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, they were facing elimination and trailing 3-0 with four minutes left. That’s as close to being done as you can get in the tight-checking NHL, but the Leafs didn’t quit, scoring three quick goals to force overtime, where Auston Matthews won it to force a deciding game.

In 2021 against the Montreal Canadiens, they watched their captain suffer a horrifying injury early in Game 1, then lost an understandably low-energy game. Rather than look shaken, they took over the series, winning three straight games and making the Canadiens look overmatched.

In 2022 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they played their worst game of the series in Game 4, losing an embarrassing 7-3 laugher that seemed set to tilt the series. They trailed heading into the third period of Game 5, but rallied back to win, taking a 3-2 series lead.

Even last year against Florida, trailing the series 3-0 and forced to give an inexperienced rookie his first career playoff start in a must-win, the Leafs played their best game of the series, grinding out a 2-1 road win to stay alive.

The pattern has been clear. Time and again, these Maple Leafs are counted out. And time and again, they defy expectations. They get back up off the mat. They look like a different team.

And then, well, you know what happens next.

Those inspiring comeback stories all end the same way.

Let’s spare the details with a quick summary. In 2018, they blew that third-period lead and lost the series. In 2020, they followed their miracle comeback with a total no-show in the deciding game and lost the series. In 2021, they collapsed against Montreal, blowing three straight to lose the series. In 2022, that inspiring win was their last because they lost the series. And against Florida last year… you get it.

Time and again, right when you think they’re done, this Leafs team battles back to give themselves a chance. And then, inevitably, they blow that chance, and whatever it took to get there is forgotten.

That’s this team’s trademark. They don’t disappear when the going gets tough. They fight back. And then they disappear.

It happens every time. Even that infamous 2013 team, one whose only link to today is Morgan Rielly, fought back from a 3-1 series deficit and played their best 48 minutes of the season before They Might Actually Do This turned into It Was 4-1.

Pick your cliché. They take their foot off the gas, they ease up on the throttle, they hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner and pat themselves on the back. Over and over and over.



How the Maple Leafs won again to force Game 7: 3 takeaways

So you’ll forgive Maple Leaf fans if they seem a little conflicted in the wake of an admittedly thrilling comeback. Yes, this team deserves credit – not because they didn’t quit, because that’s way too low to put the bar, but because they somehow found another level. They’ve seen guys step up in the absence of Auston Matthews. Jospeh Woll is spinning one of those underdog goaltending stories that can rewrite a postseason. Even much-maligned coach Sheldon Keefe has made the right moves.

And yes, the Bruins and their fans must be panicking right now. It happened last year against the Panthers; now it’s two-thirds of the way to happening again against the Maple Leafs, and it becomes a franchise-altering disaster if it does. The Leafs said they wanted to plant a seed in Game 5. It sure looks like an oak tree now.

Here’s the thing: None of it matters if the Maple Leafs don’t do what they couldn’t do in any of those other inspiring stories: Finish the job. They have to win Game 7. If not, none of what we’ve just seen will matter. It will have been fun in the moment, but meaningless in the big picture.

They have to finish. They’ve got one more chance. They’ve got one last chance.

If the Leafs win on Saturday, it will be a genuinely thrilling comeback, one that felt staggeringly unlikely. It will be a memory for their long-suffering fans to file away, next to those Pat Burns and Pat Quinn teams who used to own the city, and kind of still do. And maybe, just maybe, it could be the sort of win that rewrites a team’s DNA, and slays a few dragons – not all of them, sure, but enough for one round’s work.

If they lose? Then they lose. Again. And none of the rest of it will have mattered.

After all these years, there is no world in which this team can try to cash in close enough. Not after they played so poorly for so much of those first four games. It doesn’t matter whether Matthews plays, or their rotten injury luck strikes somewhere else. It won’t be about the bad bounces or the refs being out to get them or getting goalied.

No moral victories.

No jobs saved.

No case to be made for running it back.

They won’t have proven anyone wrong.

All they’ll have done is delayed the inevitable and forced a few search-and-replaces on those prewritten obituaries. None of the critics will be eating their words about this team because those words have been eight years in the making, not eight days. Those reputations have been earned. You don’t get to play I-told-you-so based on two good games. Not when we’ve all seen this story play out, again and again, with the same ending every time.

So change the ending. That’s the opportunity this team has earned. Complete the job, for once, instead of getting to within range of the finish line and then sputtering out. Win the series, move on to Florida as a heavy underdog, and see if there’s some real magic here. After that, who knows?

That’s the path out of this. Now, somehow, it’s there for the taking.

Finish it. Or be finished. There’s probably no middle ground. Not after all these years.

(Photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)

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