7 reasons to believe the Maple Leafs will win Game 7

7 reasons to believe the Maple Leafs will win Game 7

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A quick mix of things we got from hockey week, serious and less serious, and rolling four lanes deep. The best two words in sports, baby: Game Seven.

one. Sheldon Keefe sounded almost like Yoda before he flew back to Toronto on Friday for the biggest coaching job of his life: “The feeling in our team is one of great confidence.”

Could the three-peat-hunting Tampa Bay Lightning deal a deathblow to that confidence on Saturday night? Of course.

But here are seven reasons why Keefe is right to look on the light side. Win, they must.

• The Maple Leafs’ best players have been their best players. Everyone who has a card, everyone who signed a contract worth at least $6.9 million a year, everyone who has experienced five straight series losses has upped their game and produced on the scoreboard. The Core Five (no, it doesn’t rhyme; yes, Morgan Rielly is just as integral) have come out in a big way.

“Our team is uniquely different. Our best players are performing at critical moments and playing well as a group,” says Keefe.

“To go toe-to-toe with back-to-back champions, we feel like our best players are thriving. I still feel like this team has a lot of struggle.”

• Andrei Vasilevskiy has been beatable. Sure, Conn Smythe’s winner looked like everyone when he was under siege at the end of Game 6, but the Leafs have taken at least three records from him in every game this series. If his .885 save percentage is any clue, the Big Cat’s insane streak of five straight shutouts in close games could be in jeopardy.

• The Leafs have final change. Like the special teams, the local ice has absolutely been a factor in this airtight battle. The team in blue has beaten the team in white 4-2. This is where the winningest regular season in Leafs history can pay off.

This group has never played a series decider in front of a packed home crowd, and if Game 1 and Game 5 are any indication, positive noise could weigh in here. More important: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will be able to avoid Tampa’s superb Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-Brayden Point matchup unit more often.

Historically, home teams have a 107-77 record in Game 7.

• Jack Campbell has more to give. Yes, he has a slightly better shutout and save percentage than his counterpart. But we haven’t seen the best version of Campbell yet (.893). We also haven’t seen him at the sharpest point of him early in the last three outings.

Redemption is on the table. Score from the puck drop, save the other guy, and he can snatch it.

• Sanctions should not be history. Smart decision by Leafs players not to comment on costly Game 6 officiating. Smarter decision by Keefe to empathize with the umpires, noting they didn’t have the benefit of David Kämpf’s ghost high-stick slow-mo replay and Cal Foote’s head snap.

We’re betting that streaks will “let the players decide” a matter of life and death. If anything, they may feel like they owe the Leafs a call.

• Let’s be honest: The Maple Leafs need it more. And it has shown in their refusal to wither in the face of 2-0 deficits in Games 5 (a comeback win) and 6 (an overtime thriller they could have grabbed).

Keefe admits his favorite group went into Game 7 against Montreal and Game 5 against Columbus on “a disappointment” based on their performance in losses. This time, they are right there with a far superior enemy.

The Lightning have a chance to do something amazing, return to the top of the table and become the first three-time champions since the Islanders of the early ’80s. What if they don’t? Well, his consolation prize is a vacation and Best Franchise of the Cap Era status.

Imagine the Leafs showing up to training camp in September and looking at all the faces of guys who lost six straight playoff series and couldn’t take out an opponent nine straight.

• A victory could be a catapult. Looking around the East. Who is scarier or healthier than the Bolts? The Maple Leafs (knock on wood) are just as healthy (Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are skating fourth pair) and, shall we say, deeper and more consistent than any other team in their conference.

two. Not every individual game has been close, but the Leafs-Lightning series has been neck-and-neck in almost every aspect.

After 378 minutes of intense hockey, the Lightning have a slight edge in shot attempts (352-345), shots (190-185) and scoring opportunities (210-194).

The Maple Leafs have an edge in expected goals (19.82-19.24), high-danger chances (81-75) and actual goals (23-21).

“Not much between the two teams,” says Keefe.

In other words, neither team should feel like they’re getting better than a 3-3 series deadlock. “Referee! You! Suck!” The chants rang out just as loudly at Amalie Arena for games 3, 4 and 6 as they did at Scotiabank Arena for games 1, 2 and 5.

In a sport that can be cruelly unfair, this Game 7 is well deserved.

“It’s been a bit of a hit for hit,” says Matthews. “The hardest game to win is the last one. It is a very good opportunity for our group to seize the moment.”

3. Count me among the thousands brought down by the firing of Barry Trotz.

The job offers have already begun to arrive.

If Trotz wants to jump back behind a new bench, he’ll be the man most courted since Toronto outbid Buffalo for free agent Mike Babcock.

A hunch: Wait until a couple of solid playoff teams lose early. In other words, don’t just focus on clubs with current vacancies. More could come.

PS Regardless of who Lou Lamoriello hires as the next Isles coach, Mathew Barzal’s fantasy value just went up.

Four. Lightning trainer Jon Cooper was asked to choose between the Hart Trophy finalists: Matthews, Connor McDavid and Igor Shesterkin.

“It’s hard in this league to score 60 goals,” Cooper responded. “Any one of them can win. But scoring 60 is scoring 60. That’s pretty good.”

Matthews became the first Leaf in 79 years to finish in the top three in Hart voting in consecutive seasons (Syl Apps, 1941-42, 1942-43).

“It’s a great honor, but right now obviously the focus isn’t on that very much,” Matthews said.

Keefe points to Matthews’ 5-on-5 scoring, “the hardest thing to do in our game,” as the most impressive aspect that separates him from the rest.

“He does it at a rate that no one in the game has been able to keep up with in years,” Keefe notes.

I had Johnny Gaudreau third on my ticket and was a bit surprised that Roman Josi finished ahead of Gaudreau for the Ted Lindsay.

I can’t remember a season with so many worthy of finalist status.

“My God, [Jonathan] Huberdeau’s name is not on that list,” Cooper added. “Johnny Gaudreau has over 1,000. He probably could have been there.

5. Very cool. TNT’s Wayne Gretzky participated in the trophy vote as one of the few broadcasters selected to join professional hockey writers in the process.

To the best of the PWHA’s knowledge, this is the first time in the award’s 98-year history that an actual Hart winner (no fewer than nine) will have a say in who lifts it.

All votes will be made public after the award ceremonies.

Gretzky’s ballot might get a couple more page views than mine, but I’m going to tell my grandkids I was once a teammate of 99.

6. For all the hype and hoopla surrounding the trade deadline, there has been no better mid-season acquisition than the highly scrutinized signing of Ken Holland from UFA Evander Kane.

Kane’s shocking late run in the Oilers’ top six has only picked up steam in the postseason.

The boy co-leads all scorers with seven. Count them on your fingers.

7. The most unbelievable part of Darryl Sutter’s brilliant (if wild) prediction that playing the Colorado Avalanche in the first round would be an “eight-day loss”?

The Nashville Predators finished in seven.

8. Paul Maurice walked away from Winnipeg with his head held high. Right on time, just before the building exploded, like some kind of dry-witted action hero.

Sources say Maurice could have already signed elsewhere but, as of now, he’s content to take a breather.

As a lover of good quotes and strong personalities, I selfishly want Maurice back in the game.

9. “Your face looks like a baby’s.”

10 We’ve reached Game 7 of the most hyped series of these Stanley Cup playoffs, and central figures Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov have yet to speak to reporters because they’re Russian.

eleven Oiler turned must-have podcaster and adult lemonade czar Ryan Whitney tweeted a fierce opinion when Michael Bunting was announced as a Calder finalist:

“Lucas Raymond had the same number of goals as Bunting, only 6 points less, he is 6 years younger and did not play with Matthews and Marner. This is a joke.”

Bunting, 26, sheds jokes about Billy Madison’s age and memes.

“I listen a lot, but it doesn’t bother me. I qualify as a rookie, and that’s the way it is,” says Bunting. “I just laugh at all of that. I tune out all that kind of noise. I just have fun with it.”

It’s not true that playing on the top lane guarantees easy points, and the determined Bunting earned that position, climbing from the fourth lane.

“At the time he signed here, he was in the building every day doing work,” says Jason Spezza. “It’s not by mistake that he had the year he had.

“He realizes how difficult it is probably more than anyone here. He spent a lot of time in the minors working to get to this point. And then when he got that opportunity, it was his, and he didn’t want to give it up.” Go.”

Points aside, Bunting was a beast at generating penalties, a valuable trait when you help put the NHL’s most dangerous 5-on-4 unit on the ice, and he was less of a defensive risk than Raymond.

As a rule, he is a novice and therefore deserves consideration. He was on my ticket.

Detroit’s Moritz Seider will likely win the award.

Full disclosure, he also had Nashville’s Tanner Jeannot ahead of Raymond. I love that kid’s head start on the game.

12 It is Saturday.

The sun is out.

A Game 7 triple header is in the offing.

Hockey’s top two players are on fire and under pressure, and a future Hall of Famer could be playing for one last chance to dig deep.

Nights like these, sports fans, don’t come often.

Savor it.

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