Something feels different this season. And I'm not just referring to the lack of fans in the stands, the gruesome schedule that some teams had to go through or the humdrum feeling of seeing the same teams play each other 9 or 10 times in a 56 game schedule (at times back-to-back-to-back).
So wouldn't it be a fitting end to a bizarro year if the Toronto Maple Leafs were to not only break their 17-year first round spell but also remove the half century-long curse since they last won the Stanley Cup? But in order for that to happen, things need to be different than in past seasons.
Different as in having a winning mix, one that we typically find on Cup winners: character players, talent, grit and balance throughout the lineup. Goaltending. And, often, a judicious pickup at the trade deadline as well.
This year's edition of the Leafs appears to have all those ingredients. Talent in the form of 4 elite game-breaking forwards in Tavares, Nylander and obviously the lethal and dynamic duo of M & M. Character and grit with players likes TJ Brody, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Boghosian and Jumbo Joe who came in the off season to complement the sandpaper already present in the lineup (Hyman, Muzzin & Spezza, to name a few). Balance and depth on D, Sandin for example as an able puck-moving defenseman in a faster paced series, Ben Hutton for games that may require a more physical presence. Nick Foligno, a leader, versatile and smart all-around player added at the trade deadline should pay dividends.
The young veterans have also displayed impressive maturity in their game, and have become more responsible in all zones. It's been a long time coming, but like so many greats before their time (Steve Yzerman comes to mind), Mathews and Marner, seem to have finally understood that in order to go from excellent to great players, to win games in the most important time of the season, they needed to alter their game, bring more in the way of defensive commitment.
The Leafs also have two capable goaltenders, albeit one has missed considerable time, and the other has little to show in terms of playoff experience. Still, having a 1A and 1B is something few teams have. But the successful ones often boast the ability to take a struggling number one goalie out of the lineup at moment's notice and insert an equally capable one. This is the playoffs, after all, not a time for patience. In the end, the Leafs should be ok in the goaltending department.
The real challenge though will be getting over the first-round hump. To boot, they face their historic arch-rivals in the Montreal Canadiens, who seemingly will have little in the way of expectations, given their subpar season. The Leafs, on the other hand, will have the weight of the world riding on their shoulders. If the Habs can set a doubt in them in game one, this pressure could prove to be Herculean.
HNIM is nevertheless predicting Toronto will win this series in 6 games.
And, like the Bruins in 2011, the sea could begin to part once they get out of the toughest round of all, notably if they beat a historic rival like Montreal. Speaking of the Bruins, wouldn't it be fitting if the Buds were to play their Beantown foes, in round 3, on the way to an epic run?
Fans in Toronto have waited an awful long time. Perhaps in a year where all Canadian teams were grouped together for the first time in NHL history, it's time for the silver trophy to come back where it belongs: up North. I wonder though, if fans across the country would rally behind the Maple Leafs (should they make a deep run) in another "We the North" movement? Probably not. But then again, when you've struggled for so long as an organization, perhaps it's not time for beggars to be choosers and expect too much. Perhaps just playing hockey in early June would be a big enough accomplishment in Toronto.