Leafs learned from last season’s playoff failure, Jason Spezza says


“It motivated us throughout the summer and got us ready for this season. You learn from those experiences,” veteran centre says.

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It was early last August when Toronto did the improbable, rallying from a three-goal deficit against Columbus, late in the third period, before winning in overtime to force a deciding game in the best-of-five qualifying round.

All the momentum appeared to be with the Maple Leafs, playing on home ice at Scotiabank Arena — albeit with no spectators due to COVID-19 — before the team imploded two nights later, as it has on so many other post-season occasions, suffering a 3-0 shutout loss to the Blue Jackets.

Players change. Teams evolve and move on. But for those who returned to the Leafs, the questions remain and the sour taste lingers, even nine months later, as the club prepares for the start of its best-of-seven North Division semifinal series against the Canadiens, beginning Thursday night (7:30 p.m., CBC, SN, TVA Sports, TSN Radio-690, 98.5 FM).

“For the guys who were a part of it, it should sting,” admitted veteran centre Jason Spezza. “It motivated us throughout the summer and got us ready for this season. You learn from those experiences and it helped motivate us to a certain point. Then, at one point, you kind of shake that and you become the team you are now.

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“We’ve become our own team, a new team,” added Spezza, 37. “For the guys who were part of the bubble, that hurt and we expected bigger things from ourselves. And we learned from it.”

It remains to be determined what impact, if any, Spezza will have on this series. He scored 10 goals and 30 points in 54 games this season, so undoubtedly can still contribute. The veteran of nearly 1,200 career games, and with 351 goals on his resumé, has never won a Stanley Cup, although he reached the final in 2007 with Ottawa, which lost in five games to Anaheim.

But he, along with Joe Thornton, were brought to Toronto for a reason, their veteran leadership and experience so important at a time like this; their words of wisdom perhaps used as a barometer when adversity strikes, as it undoubtedly will. It’s why the Canadiens reached out for Corey Perry and Eric Staal, as well.

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“As veterans, you can control the emotions of the series and impart that wisdom on your teammates,” Spezza said. “What you learn through experience is the intensity that needs to go into games early on. And the focus. And (to be able to) leave games behind and move forward.”

This also marks the second playoff series for Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. He might have galvanized Toronto when he replaced Mike Babcock behind the bench in November 2019. But, like Babcock, he was unable to erase the team’s infamous opening-round post-season failures.

Keefe, 40, might not be a grizzled NHL coaching veteran, but he’s certainly more experienced than Canadiens interim coach Dominique Ducharme.

“I’ve coached a lot of playoff series at different levels,” Keefe said. “The preparation, execution and things you do on the bench are the same, no matter the level. Dom would feel the same.

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“The area I’ve grown the most is growing with the players; my relationship with them,” he added. “Having gone through that (Columbus) series and losing it makes you better. You make adjustments. You know how to push what you feel are the right buttons to have the team push through those situations.”

While both teams are expecting the series to be physical, Keefe also realizes his best players will need to excel for the Leafs to advance. This is the time of year when players make their reputations, and Toronto has two of the finest, in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

“That’s the next step we’re looking to take as a team,” Keefe said. “To get there, our best players have to be our best players. This is the hardest time of the year; the time you want to thrive. Those guys are excited to have that opportunity.”

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Centre Matthews led the NHL in goals, with 41 in 52 games, while right-winger Marner, the line’s playmaker, added 20 goals and 67 points in 55 games. They were two of the top five producers in the league this season, and provide Toronto with an offensive edge over the Canadiens.

“Obviously we want to be a line that drives this team, goes out there and produces bot also plays a good two-way game,” Marner said. “I think we’ve done a great job of that all year. It’s going to be harder in the playoffs.”

Meanwhile, defenceman Zach Bogosian is expected to return after missing the last month with a shoulder injury. Bogosian won the Cup last season with Tampa Bay.

hzurkowsky@postmedia.com

twitter.com/HerbZurkowsky1

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