Game 6: Leafs 2, Bruins 1
Maybe in our wildest dreams we were willing to go there but didn’t dare to given the way things started with that beating in Beantown.
But here we are: Game 7. Tonight. Boston.
Win and the Leafs advance to the second round — completely uncharted territory in their recent history and a chance to continue this spring adventure.
Lose, and it’s a valuable learning experience — nothing more than an opened up window to see what this team was really made of under such an intense microscope. Of course, cynics will deem a loss as a choke — that the Leafs with the door kicked open once again couldn’t walk through it. There’s no pleasing some in Leafs Nation but to hang onto that as one’s final impression of this wildly exciting, entertaining series would be a shame.
Toronto was not supposed to be in this spot. Toronto wasn’t expected to show this kind of fight, have this kind of speed and skill and compete level that’s stretched the Bruins to the limit. Toronto was supposed to be merely a jumpable hurdle to be cleared enroute to a long Stanley Cup run for a core of Bruins players only two years removed from being champions.
But Toronto has proven to be much more than that.
How they managed to get there — the character, toughness, talent and compete level — has opened the eyes of even the staunchest Leaf disbelievers. It has been a remarkable spring of possibilities and we are growing and learning along with this squad as much as they are under the steady and cunning hand of Randy Carlyle.
It was only fitting that Game 6’s heroes were a chance for two of the Leafs favourite fan targets to come through. Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel each scored while the recently under-performing Nazem Kadri assisted on Phaneuf’s goal which broke a scoreless, tense game in the opening minutes of the third.
Of the three, Kessel was likely feeling the least pressure ever since having been released from purgatory following his performance in Game 2’s 4-2 win in enemy territory. His confidence, indeed his efforts have flourished since then and that’s not just good to see but may be key in tonight’s winner-take-all game. A free-flowing and confident Phil Kessel is a good thing for this hockey club.
For frequently beleaguered captain Phaneuf — who still appears bothered by some ailment — it’s more complicated. Phaneuf took the bullet for Game 4’s overtime loss citing his decision to pinch was the wrong one. Since then he’s been smeared, doubted and positively lambasted in the media and by fans as a no-good, risk-taking, turnover machine who doesn’t really care and we should just strip the “C” off him right now.
If you pay attention to any of the between-game chatter that fills the airwaves and social media it is truly depressing to hear and read the over-the-top criticism being directed at him. Some criticism may have been merited in such an emotional loss as happened in Game 4 but really people, get a grip.
His goal last night — just the tiniest of a stick deflection to fool Tuukka Rask — was obviously a huge relief for him judging by his triumphant celebration. He won something back in himself with that goal; something that again may come in handy for tonight’s game. But the critics will be back in full voice if he does anything even remotely connected that may result in a loss, especially in a game of such high stakes.
Like I said, it’s complicated with Phaneuf.
Kadri has also been hearing the whispers about the apparent loss of his scoring touch, his level of engagement in these post-season games. Still, he gets a hall pass because it’s all new to him but most allow he has disappeared a bit too much for their liking during his first NHL playoffs. Game 6 was probably Kadri’s best game of the series with him laying on the body a few times, creating some scoring chances and of course, assisting on Phaneuf’s goal with a shot from the point.
A Game 7 win will of course require strong performances from these three. But we’ve also seen enough evidence that contributions have come from all parts of this squad. That, combined with James Reimer playing at the same level he has for the last three games, and this dream just might continue.