In Game 7, Leafs will confront both Canadiens and ghost of playoffs past


Pucker factor.

That’s the military term for it.

How do you respond under duress? When the stakes are higher than the resale prices for the first fan-attended Canadian hockey game in 14-plus months? When history and past trauma and 2,500 Olé, Olé, Olés are cracking your amour if not your psyche?

In and outside of the club’s bubble, much has been made of the 2021 Toronto Maple Leafs’ improved consistency, their sturdy leadership, and matured poise.

According to plan, they thrived in a dominant regular-season, essentially running Canada wire-to-wire, busting records and swiping trophies and elevating hopes.

They splurged like a quarantined customer riding an Amazon Prime free trial at the trade deadline.

They seized a 3-1 series lead over the seemingly outmatched 16th-seed Montreal Canadiens without aid of their fallen captain.

They’ve had two cracks to show “killer instinct” instead of saying it.

They had the ghost trapped in their proton beams… and crossed the streams.

So. Here we are again, for a seventh time, with a rich and talented core that has now fallen to 0-and-6 in opportunities to eliminate a post-season opponent.

“The games have gotten harder. Montreal has played better, and we haven’t dealt with it well,” Sheldon Keefe said following Saturday’s 3-2 Game 6 overtime loss.

Putting forth a face of composure, the Maple Leafs coach looked like a driver whose 18-wheeler is still on the road — but the treads are wearing thin.

Yes, the Maple Leafs will be battling a zoned-in Carey Price, a giddy Jesperi Kotkaniemi and the cross-checks of Shea Weber in Game 7.

But, like it or not, they’ll also be fighting the spectre of all those failures in TD Garden and the bubble.

“I’m not worried about that, no,” Keefe said. “I don’t think pressure is an issue here. I think it’s just a matter of playing a hockey game where we’ve got to elevate our play.

“We’re not focused on any of the other things that, frankly, are irrelevant in this moment for our team.”

What will be extremely relevant is how the Maple Leafs start at 7 p.m. on Monday and whether all those good habits to earn home ice were worth anything.

Toronto dug itself deficits of 0-3 in Game 5 and 0-2 in Game 6.

The latter was a game 2020 Cup champ Zach Bogosian said they had to treat like a Game 7. Let’s hope not, for Leafs’ sake. They were out-chanced 21-6 in Period 1 and lucky to escape the first 20 minutes tied 0-0.

Let’s be clear: the Canadiens deserve full marks for their role in the puckering.

So, how does one explain such disengaged starts in such important games?

“Can’t. It’s unacceptable here this time of year, obviously,” said Nick Foligno, after his return to the lineup. “It’s learning from that and understanding our starts are critical against this team. It gives them all the momentum.”

On this night, Montreal built its lead with a trademark-ugly Corey Perry paint-crashing goal that triggered a series of unfortunate events. One problem became three.

Keefe failed on a long-shot goalie-interference challenge. He’d hoped Tyler Toffoli impeded Jack Campbell’s ability to gain position during the crease scramble and the scoreboard would be wiped clean.

“We weren’t really sure how that one would go, but thought, given what was happening in the game with the significance of the goal, thought in the moment that it was worthy of a challenge and having confidence in our penalty kill if we needed to get it done, like it has all series for us,” Keefe explained.

Killing the bench’s delay-of-game minor, an unhurried Mitch Marner threw the puck over the glass, triggering a juicy 5-on-3 power play. Toffoli doubled the lead in short order.

“Dumb play,” Marner admitted.

Keefe provided this curt assessment of his top line: “They worked really hard. Obviously, they didn’t get enough done.”

Sure, there is some solace in responding strong with Jake Muzzin (lower-body) departing early, in getting deep-cut contributions from Jason Spezza and T.J. Brodie, and in rallying late to force overtime.

But when the margins for error are so slim, tough-luck shooting percentages (Auston Matthews: 3.1; Marner: 0) don’t have time to crawl back to the norm.

Daggers flash out of the dark, and it’s over before you know it.

In Game 5, the OT winner was sprung off a brutal high-zone turnover by Alex Galchenyuk, who’d had a fabulous rebound season and was a difference-maker in Game 3.

In Game 6, it was Travis Dermott, who had been virtually mistake-free in his two series appearances, mishandling the puck in his own zone.

To think: Toronto had generated the first eight shots of the fourth period and steered every chunk of rubber away from Campbell through OT’s first 11 minutes.

One Dermott fumble, one Bogosian screen, and one opportunistic Jesperi Kotkaniemi later, and the Canadiens accomplished something never seen before. They became the first team in NHL history to surrender multi-goal, third-period leads in consecutive games while facing elimination, and win each of them.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling, especially with all the fans that are here,” hero Kotkaniemi said.

The Maple Leafs will get you down, but not out.

Yet.

“It’s a game of inches out there in overtime to obviously end the game, and we couldn’t get it done,” said Matthews, seeing each of his game-high seven shots die on Price. “We’d like to see those pucks go in. But we’re just going to keep shooting and keep fighting and keep working to help the team win.”

Over the post-loss Zoom calls, the veteran Foligno sounded like the only Leaf unburdened by the ghosts.

The new guy has lived what it takes to be on the happy side of a do-or-die playoff game.

He sounded optimistic, downright unpuckered.

“These guys care. You see in that room. You feel it. We have a great opportunity in front of us,” Foligno said.

“In a Game 7, you rise the occasion because you’re in the moment, and you know there may not be tomorrow. You look around that room and the guys on our team that have the abilities that they have — I feel real confident with their mindset being that way.

“And don’t worry about what the fans are saying. It doesn’t matter.

“This happens for a reason. Sometimes this is what catapults you. It’s hard for the fan base to hear right now, but we’re going to come and have the mindset that we’re going to win a hockey game.”

Is it Monday yet?



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