Bruce Arthur: Leafs know Game 7 impact might not be fair, but you get what you play for

Bruce Arthur: Leafs know Game 7 impact might not be fair, but you get what you play for
This is not last year’s Game 7 in Boston, and that wasn’t the Game 7 in Boston before that. Hockey, like everything else, isn’t destiny until after it happens. Destiny, and legacy. It’s not necessarily fair, but it’s hockey.

“We’re not in the fair business here,” said Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey. “This is still the big leagues. If you make a mistake, you lose the right to play.”

That’s what this Leafs season has come down to. After 88 games that counted, everything about the progress of this franchise — measurable, evident progress — will come down to one game. If they win they will play the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets in a wide-open playoff year and anything could happen, anything. If they win, the road could lead to almost anywhere you can dare to imagine.

And if they lose it won’t functionally matter that Toronto was better than last year’s model. It will just mean they lost to the team with the third-best record in hockey, and that another year of what the club believes is a championship window is over, and they have to try again. It’s like Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving told reporters Monday after his top-seeded team lost in five games: the expectation leads to the disappointment.

This Leafs team is still working with stars such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner playing on entry-level deals. It added John Tavares and Jake Muzzin to a team that lost to Boston in seven games last season. Yes, there are injuries, including some we probably don’t know about yet. Yes, playing Boston is the result of a mathematically inept system built on a sport’s deep insecurities.

But that’s the gig. Team president Brendan Shanahan always put a lot of value in how players played in the biggest games when he was in the league, even while understanding the natural variance of the game itself and the dangers of sample size. Asked about the best Game 7s he has ever seen from a player, Muzzin said, “Well, I mean, Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams had a few good ones.”

Williams has seven goals and 14 points in eight career Game 7s, out of the 1,390 games he’s suited up for. One game is a molecule in the grand scheme of a career, but it’s also the game where you max out your capacity: no back-to-backs, no schedule losses, no tomorrow, unless you earn it. It’s one game, and everything.

And before it happens, all you can do is guess what will unfold. All the players can do is guess, too.

“No, just because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Hainsey. “Last night’s game we started off great, get the first goal, run into penalty trouble, they pump two, and the next thing you know we’re chasing the game. It’s unpredictable; that’s what makes it fun. You don’t know what’s going to happen. So that’s a long answer of no. You just don’t know. You can get off to a great start, run into penalties like we did last night or who knows what.”

This whole series has been a tug of war. Toronto was better in Game 1; Boston was just as better in Game 2. Toronto was better in Game 3; Toronto made more mistakes, and more plays, in Game 4. The Leafs earned Game 5; Boston earned Game 6.

No player has been the same in any two games. There are broader patterns — Toronto’s penalty kill has been strafed, and if it hadn’t this would already be over — but even those vary. Boston went 0-for-3 on the power play in Game 5, and got those two in Game 6. Every game is its own story.

So who can rise to the occasion? Is it even fair to judge a player based on one try at this sometimes controllable game?

Again: that’s the gig. It’s just how these things work, fair or not.

“Yeah, I don’t know if it’s crazy,” said forward Zach Hyman. “The whole series, you have so many games to put a team away, and I guess we had one opportunity. Up 3-2, we had an opportunity to put them away.

“And they battled back and they pushed back and now it’s our time to push back at them. And it’s going to come down to one game, and you think it’s crazy that the whole year comes down to one game, but it’s the cumulative effort of all those games adding up, and two teams going at it, and you have one game to decide it all. And you’ve got to be ready for it.”

They will all be judged. Will Marner recapture the season-long magic that seemed to dull after Game 3? Can Tavares, who has held Patrice Bergeron to one assist at five-on-five while only garnering two himself, rise to a higher place against one of the great two-way players of the age? Can Matthews, who scored one goal on 27 shots last year against Boston, add to his five goals on 29 this time? Can Morgan Rielly, who played one of his finest games in Game 6, do it again?

The Leafs lost in this game a year ago, and waited a year to get a chance to try again. It will be a part of how this team, and its stars, are remembered. It will feel like destiny and legacy, even in a game where the bounces on bad ice could be the thing to decide it, no matter how well you play or how much heart you pour out. It’s not always fair. It’s a little crazy. That’s just how hockey works.

“That’s what you play for,” said Hyman. “You play for the chance to do something special.”
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