Leafs search for killer instinct, look to bury playoff ghosts with Bolts on the brink
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, May 11, 2022 5:21PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, May 11, 2022 5:21PM EDT
TORONTO - Michael Bunting had one thought when Jason Spezza stepped to the first-intermission floor.
The veteran forward's impassioned words in the locker room helped spark a comeback after the Maple Leafs fell behind 2-0 early in Game 5 of their best-of-seven series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“A veteran in this league for a very long time,” Bunting said. “He's a leader in our room, and he's very vocal. Everyone listened.
“It was a great speech. He really got the guys going.”
Toronto would roar back for a dramatic 4-3 victory Tuesday that pushed the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions to the brink of elimination, and moved the Original Six franchise one victory from advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004 heading into Thursday's Game 6 in Tampa.
“I loved the response,” Spezza said Wednesday morning before the Leafs headed south. “There was great desperation from the group. We recognized the situation.
“A great pushback.”
Toronto now faces an even stiffer challenge as it attempts to unseat the champs in their backyard - facing down the ghosts of past playoff failures.
This is a new group, but there's baggage.
A core that includes Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly has had seven opportunities to close out series in their time in blue and white since first making the post-season in 2017.
They've come up snake eyes all seven times, including a stunning collapse in last spring's first round after building a 3-1 lead on the Montreal Canadiens.
So can killer instinct be learned?
“It's more so that the feeling of winning is contagious,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “It's one that is addicting.
“We look at the team that we're trying to be and (the Lightning) have that, right? That's carried them through to two playoff runs and championships. That's what's going to make it that much more difficult to finish the job. But they also went through their own experience.”
Spezza, who's in his 19th NHL season and made the Cup final in 2007 with the Ottawa Senators, said the Leafs have to prove they have what it takes to get over the first-round hump.
“Until you do it, I don't think anybody has it,” he said of killer instinct. “You try to learn from mistakes from the past.
“We've moved forward and this is a new version of the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Tampa suffered heartbreak in the 2015 final and won the Presidents' Trophy in 2019 only to be stunningly swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets before winning the Cup two years ago.
They then followed it up with a second straight sip from hockey's holy grail.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said mental hurdles are something every title-clinching team faces.
“Is there pressure on them? There's no doubt,” he said when asked about Toronto's pockmarked playoff history. “They're humans. They're going to be feeling it. No question.
“We've been in some of these situations. We have won these type of games before. But that doesn't mean we're going to. We just can't go out there and throw our sticks on the ice and say, 'Well, these guys haven't won in the past, so it's ours.'
“Until you start winning these games, there's always going to be doubt in your mind.”
One of three players nominated for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year Wednesday, Bunting is keenly aware what a series win would do not only for the team, but also a tortured fan base.
“I've been a Leaf fan my whole life,” said the Toronto native. “We've got great fans in this city, diehard fans. I'm sure it would mean a lot to them if we are able to close this out.
“Believe us that we want to do that and we're going to do everything we can to make that possible. It's just been a fun ride so far.”
That ride Tuesday included a tough start and some incredible play from goaltender Jack Campbell to keep the Lightning within reach.
Campbell was pulled in a 7-3 loss to Tampa in Game 4 before his teammates could finally get in gear in a series where copious amounts of penalties on both sides have killed momentum and flow.
“This group's just special,” Campbell said. “We've learned a lot from those (playoff) experiences.
“(Game 5) is huge step and looking to take that next step.”
It certainly won't be easy against a team that hasn't lost consecutive games over the last three playoffs.
“It's obviously been a challenge for us to close out series,” Keefe said. “But it's one that we believe our team has worked for all season and has had that attitude to rise to challenges.”
And the 38-year-old Spezza, who played just six minutes Tuesday, but had five points in last year's playoffs after dropping the gloves in attempt to spark his team during the 2020 qualifying round, knows it's crucial to not let opportunities pass as the sands of time tumble through each player's hourglass.
“We're all fighting together,” he said “We've worked really hard to get ourselves in a position to be in the playoffs.
“We can't let the moment slip away.”
The next one is set for Thursday in Tampa.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2022.