It’s funny: while the Leafs have struggled at times in this series, they have also, at other times, showed not only a lot of determination but skill and guts. Blocked shots, some great passing, big hits, huge saves. Sure, they have made enough “mistakes” to fill a small book, but they’re not exactly playing the Little Sisters of the Poor, so some perspective is probably required.
I’m not going to go through a laundry list of guys I think have played well or not quite as well as I would have liked so far. Suffice to say I believe most of the Leaf players have shown up, and acquitted themselves pretty darn well—especially given that this group is playing in the playoffs together for the first time, and a number of them are actually playing for the first time ever in NHL playoff action.
That Carlyle has spent time trying to mix and match and move guys around throughout the series—and the resultant lack of familiarity—may be part of the reason why we are seeing a lack of cohesion at times. But I like the effort by and large, and am happy seeing them play meaningful games at a time of year when hockey matters most.
Reimer has been all right by me (and yes, we should keep him and build around him). We have obviously given up the puck too much at times, and while defense is a five-man unit, yes, we are probably a little undermanned on the back end. (I’m guessing Liles draws into the lineup given Fraser’s injury, but we’ll see.) Could we win with this defense corps? I don’t know, but clearly the future is with youngsters like Gardiner and Rielly and maybe some others on the way.
Up front, it’s hard to deny that Kessel is flying around the ice, or that Grabovski is giving all that he has. Others are making obvious contributions, too. We can debate Carlyle’s roster choices, sure. But c’mon, while we like to say the Leafs have “depth”, I’m not sure we can fairly say he has that much flexibility with his forward lines. We can debate Orr/MacLaren until we’re blue in the face, but I can pretty much guarantee that, over time, some fans would find fault with just about anyone we put out there in their place. There’s usually a reason guys aren’t playing, and the coaches see the players more than anyone. Because someone scores a goal (e.g. MacArthur) does not, in my view at least, mean he should have been in the lineup from the get go. He’s a guy that can go long stretches and not do much, so I find it difficult to suggest Carlyle has somehow mismanaged his roster, though some obviously feel that way.
The series could be 2-2 right now, no question. Do the Leafs deserve a better fate? An argument could certainly be made that they do. And it would surely be a different “feeling” for the team heading into Boston Friday night if they were now in a two-out-of three series, as opposed to knowing they must win three games in a row.
So what can we expect in Game 5?
Often the expectation is the home team should wrap things up, for all the usual reasons. They’re at home, have the momentum, are motivated to get some rest for the next round, etc.. And in the case of the Bruins, they have “been there” before, and have learned how to close out a series.
But just like we expected a better, less mistake-prone Game from Toronto on Wednesday than what the Leafs delivered in Game 3, I sense Toronto will be ready to play a solid road game Friday night.
The regular factors come to mind: they are facing elimination and proud athletes, generally speaking, give everything they have when looking at a long summer ahead. The very idea of watching the other team celebrate and shake your hand on your way out the door provides ample ammunition, I would think.
Reimer won’t give up, we know that. None of these guys will. What has, say, Jake Gardiner got to lose at this point? He spent long stretches watching from the press box. He’s happy to be playing hockey. He didn’t seem too terribly worried about making a costly mistake in Game 4, so I’m guessing he has decided (or been allowed) to do what he does best: skate with the puck, make plays and be a threat in the offensive zone. (If he has the puck, the other team doesn’t…) I expect Kadri to have his best game of the series. Grabovski is surely due to catch a break and score a goal. For a good chunk of the series, van Riemsdyk has been one of the most important Leafs. He tends to score in bunches, so Friday night would be timely, eh?
The Leafs deserve credit for some moments of solid play on Wednesday. Killing off the Kadri four-minute penalty in the third period with the game on the line, for me, was a good sign for the future. If we can continue to be a team that can kill penalties well, including in the playoffs, that bodes well.
Are there a few (maybe less than that) who maybe have even more to give? I don't know if I can fairly say that. I have some thoughts about that, but for now, I’ll keep them to myself. Some individuals are playing hurt, and some are maybe doing all they can against a very tough opponent.
The Bruins, I will say again, are beatable. They have been this entire series and were certainly there for the taking in Games 3 and 4.
Can the Leafs do it three more times? Can they do it Friday night?
Many of you know I’m not a predictions guys, but my gut, for what little that means, tells me we may well have Game 6 back in Toronto on Sunday night.
What say you?