TORONTO — You would be hard-pressed to dream up circumstances that better test the vision the Toronto Maple Leafs set out for themselves.
First, a pandemic that abruptly stopped the season while players gathered inside Scotiabank Arena preparing for a game that would never be played. Then months of waiting, wondering and hoping for an opportunity to resume the pursuit of the Stanley Cup. Then a rolled-out return to the practice facility for conditioning skates that started small and grew larger as health protocols allowed.
And now, finally, a playoff series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the NHL’s top team at preventing goals off the rush and an elite bunch at limiting shots from the slot — two areas where the Leafs are lethal.
It is not too simplistic to boil down the best-of-five that begins Sunday night as a matchup of strength vs. strength.
Nor is it too much of a stretch to suggest that it will provide the Leafs with evidence of how sound their plan is, perhaps especially because of the extreme conditions under which it’ll be played.
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This was a team that showed signs it was capable of competing for a championship in its best moments during the 2019-20 season. After Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock behind the bench on Nov. 20, nobody spent more time with the puck on their sticks in all three zones than Toronto did and nobody scored more goals.
But the Leafs didn’t find a consistency in performance to put themselves among the elite of the elite, going through a January lull that included lopsided losses to Florida and Chicago and a seven-day stretch in February where they were beaten 5-2 by Buffalo, 5-2 by Pittsburgh and 6-3 by Carolina on a night where emergency goalie David Ayres played more than 31 minutes in the Hurricanes net.
Those were moments where doubts started to creep in about the big expectations hanging over the Leafs campaign. They showed that a high-octane offensive group could grow frustrated when the scoring chances dried up, which will be something John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets are counting on in a qualifying series where the coach is willing to play defencemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski for half the game.
So the question in Toronto, really, is this: Have the Leafs shed that skin and grown through their experiences and found a resiliency to push through the times when things don’t go their way?
We should get an indication, one way or the other, in a series where they’re playing a team that blocks 32.2 per cent of the even-shot attempts in its own zone. One that takes away the middle of the ice effectively and isn’t prone to turning the puck over for the dangerous rush chances against. One that will identify the neutral zone as an area where the Leafs can be discouraged by not effectively getting in gear.
This is a much different test than the one they faced three years ago in Washington or the last two springs in Boston. Those series came with a focus on how Toronto might handle elite players and dangerous forward lines on the other side, while this one is more of an internal referendum — which is not, it should be noted, intended as a slight or a shot at the Blue Jackets.
It’s just that the Leafs are getting deeper into their window to build a contender and they’ve reached the critical point of a season that saw them fire Babcock, a foundational figure in the rebuild. That represented a sea-change moment for the organization and came with a strong public defence of the program from president Brendan Shanahan, who provided a nice lens for us to view these playoffs through while speaking with reporters the following morning in Arizona.
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“I think sometimes people want to, too simplistically, put us in one box as speed and skill, and toughness and grit in an entirely different box. We want to also be tough, we want to be gritty,” Shanahan said during the Nov. 21 press conference. “I think that our interpretation of toughness and grittiness might be different from someone who played in the 70’s and 80’s or coached them. To me, some of the players, if you even look at Ryan O’Reilly who won the Conn Smythe Trophy [in 2019] and had an exceptional playoffs, I see him as a guy that is tough and gritty, but I think he had four penalty minutes in the playoffs.
“I think the definition and how we define that to our players about winning battles and being mentally tough, making a mistake and not becoming weak or small because of it.”
We’ve all been tested in new ways over these last few months and the Leafs are hanging their hats on the response by players who decided to return to Toronto en masse as soon as the NHL provided the green light for voluntary workouts starting in early June.
The pause also gave Keefe the chance to run his first training camp and everyone else an opportunity to step off the roller-coaster long enough to take a hard look at the issues that held the Leafs back from becoming a top-five team in the regular season.
Now they face an experienced offence-killing, patience-testing underdog — their antithesis — in this strangest of NHL summers. They are expected to win, which is new, and playing in an environment unlike anything any of us have ever seen.
“We believe in our team,” said Keefe. “We believed we had a lot of great moments throughout the season in my time there. We showed what we’re capable of doing and we want to kind of embrace those rather than dwelling on the negatives.
“We’ve really worked hard here to clean up a lot of things in our game and we’re looking for greater consistency in it.”
They’ve had a long wait, but they also found themselves with more time to grow.