Bruce Arthur: Maple Leafs will take the simple approach in rematch with Bruins

Bruce Arthur: Maple Leafs will take the simple approach in rematch with Bruins
They can beat Boston. Of course they can beat Boston. The Toronto Maple Leafs were a lesser team in about five to 10 ways last season, and they held a lead in the third period of Game 7. We know how it ended, of course. Toronto, and Boston, have heard that song before.

But starting Thursday they will sing it again, and see how it ends. The Maple Leafs are three years into their contending window, old enough that salary-cap headaches are already crowding their minds, and they haven’t won a playoff series yet. A lot of people seem to think the Bruins have Toronto’s number. The Leafs say they don’t. They believe they’re good enough, again.

Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen believes his team can play through its struggles by not overcomplicating things.  (Mark Blinch / NHLI via GETTY IMAGES)

“Absolutely,” says centre Nazem Kadri, one of the two remaining Leafs, along with defenceman Jake Gardiner, who have lost to Boston in Game 7 twice. “We believe we can beat anybody and that’s our true confidence, our quiet swagger in the dressing room that we hold ourselves to, and I think that’s a key component to having success, is believing in your team and yourself.”

Like any sport, hockey requires confidence and fearlessness: Ask any player up to and including Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner about the role of confidence, and they will tell you it’s everything. When players talk about playing simple, about not trying to do too much, it’s like a tightrope walker telling themselves the whole thing works better if the rope is closer to the ground. The best players play their best when they don’t look down. Last year the Leafs were rolling at the end of the second period of Game 7, they looked faster, and they had a lead with 20 minutes to go.

And then the Bruins scored 70 seconds into the period, when Gardiner turned the wrong way on Jake DeBrusk, and after that Toronto looked like they didn’t know what to do. As coach Mike Babcock put it then, “We were still in a good spot (at 4-4). The next one hurt us. We didn’t respond. It was like devastation instead of just playing and executing in the third period.”

“It could have went either way,” says Kadri. “And I think when you have two teams of this calibre I think mistakes are magnified. They’re going to capitalize on every opportunity that they get, and so are we.”

The Leafs failed at their biggest moment, and now they have played another 82 games to get the chance to try again and find out more of what they’re made of.

“I don’t know, I think we have an amazing team with a lot of players and I think sometimes ... I think (when we struggle), we want to work our way out of it and maybe do too much,” Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen said recently. “And I think what it comes down to is settling down and playing more simple. I think that’s the way we get out of this slump. Sometimes the game comes easier to you and you do more things, and once the puck doesn’t bounce your way you don’t want to overcomplicate things.”

Which means trusting yourself, right?

“Yeah, I think that’s what I mean ... playing simple means you trust your abilities to come out once you play a simple game, and that will eventually mean you’re going to get more open chances and more space to let your skill show,” Andersen said. “I don’t know how it is, but I imagine once you don’t feel like it’s going for you, maybe you overcomplicate things a little bit. Same with being a goalie, if you’re not seeing the puck, you’ll either over-challenge the puck, or under, you’ll be too deep or you have trouble finding your depth. Yeah, and that’s just something you work through.”

And that’s one story of this series. Yes, it’s a clash of hockey civilizations. The Leafs can score with anybody; and the Bruins can defend with anybody. One plays fast, and one plays slow. Toronto will face the kind of hockey Toronto coach Mike Babcock preaches: heavy, competitive and safe. Boston tends to be a little better at controlling their percentages. They were last year.

So to win the Leafs need to trust in how they do things, and not waver when things get rough. Things will get rough. Babcock thinks Toronto’s recent struggles will be good for them. He says, “If you have no chance, there’s no pressure. Much rather have a little duress for everybody, and I think that’s where the fun’s at.

“Lots of time you have a career year and, if you go two games without scoring, everyone’s all over you. Just play well. Don’t read any of the news, just play well, keep doing it, be patient and stick to your game and everything will turn good.”

Look, the Leafs got to play the team with the fourth-best record last season, and this year, they get the same team with the second-best record. It’s dumb. But if you want to be a contender, at some point you have to win a series. Anything less is a disappointment.

“We played the whole season being told what we had to do to get ready for this,” defenceman Travis Dermott says, “so we’ve got a lot of practice, and it’s just about going out and getting it done.”
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