That they could follow that up with perhaps an even more impressive all-around effort in Game 6 at the ACC nudged the story line just a little further. Leaf fans have a reason to ask themselves: just what are we watching? Is this the unveiling of something new—a team that has speed, skill, youth and the long elusive ‘team toughness? And superior netminding to boot?
Is this a mirage?
I say no, it is not.
I have no idea what will happen in Game 7. But I know this: we are seeing something unfold that no one predicted, at least not as it pertains to the spring of 2013. Oh, I well realize that some Leaf pundits have talked about prospects and a potentially bright future, but I have not encountered a Leaf supporter who, before this shortened season got underway, truly believed this team was playoff-bound this season. And if they did believe such an outcome was possible, surely they acknowledged they felt would the Leafs would be cannon fodder for whoever they played in the first round.
So here we sit. I won’t try to provide some kind of unique analysis of Game 6, or where this team is at. I’ll just make a few simple observations, that you may or may not agree with:
- Kessel does not look like a player who cannot handle playoff pressure. He is skating just like he does in the regular-season. He is flying around out there. He could have more goals than he has, sure, but he has scored some awfully timely markers in this series.
- Grabovski has played with a huge heart this entire series. I don’t doubt we’d all like to see the guy catch and break (as in a puck going into the net for him) but he has done everything we could have asked him to do in this set-to with the Bruins.
- Is anyone doubting that Reimer can play? I mean, as with most goalies, there will be times in the years ahead that he will struggle, and old questions may re-surface, but has he proven to his critics that a) yes, he can play, and that b) he does indeed have fire in his belly—and the temperament to succeed in this market.
- I have raised questions about Gardiner’s ability to play well enough in his own end. Like Reimer, he may at some point struggle down the road, but right now, he is certainly addressing any concerns I had about how we would handle the bright lights of playoff hockey.
- Could we expect more from van Riemsdyk, who yet again was pivotal in getting his big body in front of Rask and distracted Bruin defenseman long enough to allow Kessel to get the puck with time and space to score the game’s all-important second goal Sunday night?
- I wondered, too, if Colborne would be ready for the type of hockey that is required at this time of year. In his playoff “debut”, he certainly showed he belonged. (He was on the ice with two minutes to go…)
- For all the critics, can Carlyle coach: as I’ve said in this space for a long time, yes, he can.
Of course, games are not won by one or two individuals. It is about stars, role-players, believing in the “system”—and each other—and overcoming mistakes and supporting one another. This was a classic team effort. From Colton Orr to MacArthur to O’Byrne to Kadri and his relentless drive (to Kulemin’s crucial blocked shot in the dying seconds), this was a team, on this night (and through much of this series) that has shown a will to win.
Will. It’s a small word with a powerful meaning. Some of you remember that I spoke a few days ago about “will”. For me, along with talent and goaltending, teams need to have 20 players filled with “will” when playoff time comes. And right now, the Leafs are showing that trait in spades.
There’s a lot more we can say. But there is another game to play. Then we can make some final pronouncements about the series, though this is but a chapter in the ongoing development of this Leaf team. But I’ll say this: I’d be shocked in the vast majority of Leaf fans are not pleased that, more than just getting into the playoffs, this club is showing pride, discipline, toughness and courage in trying to win a series few that they had a chance to win.
Mistakes may creep back into our game. Maybe even in Game 7. We’ll see. But they’ve shown us what they can do. And for now, that’s pretty good.