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‘Be in the here and now’: Maple Leafs primed for playoff rematch with Lightning

Toronto trying to win a playoff series for the first time since 2004
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander (88) moves the puck ahead of Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman (77) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, April 11, 2023, in Tampa, Fla. The Maple Leafs host the Lightning on Tuesday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Chris O’Meara

Ryan O’Reilly could sense the pressure not long after setting foot in his new locker room.

A proud franchise blotted by a long list of playoff failures — and without a Stanley Cup since 1967 — recent Maple Leafs iterations have crumbled under the weight of expectation in this hockey-obsessed market.

O’Reilly, a Stanley Cup champion acquired from the St. Louis Blues in a February blockbuster trade, was part of a team that finally got over its championship hump in 2019.

Toronto’s core led by star forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander are looking to just take their first step — win a playoff round.

It’s been a frustrating, head-scratching puzzle to this point.

Unable to advance in the post-season since 2004, the Leafs have wasted plenty of recent opportunities as they prepare to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in a rematch of last spring’s first-round series.

Toronto was up 3-2 on the Boston Bruins in 2019 and lost in seven games, fell 3-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2020 pandemic-necessitated qualifying round, and blew a 3-1 lead against the Montreal Canadiens in 2021.

Tampa then came back from a 3-2 deficit to win Games 6 and 7 in 2022. Toronto also lost to the Washington Capitals in the first round in 2017 and Boston in 2018.

The squeeze is real with the opener against the Lightning set for Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena.

O’Reilly has watched the Leafs tortured talent navigate their reality ahead of the curtain being raised on Toronto’s latest playoff foray.

He came away impressed.

“It’s the mecca of hockey and there’s that pressure on them,” said the veteran forward, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as post-season MVP in 2019. “But they’re so mature in the way they’ve handled it. You can tell the mindset’s right.

“It’s not easy to win, but I think we have a great chance to win. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

The Leafs, who are 0-9 with an opportunity to eliminate a post-season opponent since 2018, will once again be looking to exorcise their playoff ghosts in the seven-game matchup with Tampa, a team that hoisted the Cup in 2020 and 2021 before also making last year’s final.

O’Reilly was the big piece of a mid-season roster reconstruction that saw a flurry of deals also bring fellow forwards Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty into the fold, along with defencemen Jake McCabe, Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson.

“We had an extremely good team last year,” said veteran blue-liner Mark Giordano. “We were right there. But all the guys we brought in are really good players who are gonna step in and give us more depth.”

Snagged ahead of last season’s trade deadline from the Seattle Kraken, Giordano also got the sense Toronto’s core is truly sick of talking about all that’s previously gone wrong.

“It’s sucks … it’s obviously something that’s there,” he said. “This time of year (you) wipe everything in the past clean.

“It’s all about playoff success now.”

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper pointed out recently that for all the changes to Toronto’s roster, the baseline remains the same.

“Definitely a different-looking team,” he said. “But in the end, it’s Matthews, it’s Marner, it’s Tavares, it’s Nylander … go down the list.

“That’s their core, that’s their group. That group hasn’t changed.”

The Leafs were cemented in the Atlantic Division’s No. 2 slot this season behind the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins and ahead of Tampa for months.

That slow march allowed head coach Sheldon Keefe to tinker with his forward lines and defence pairs, and give players rest and recovery time when needed.

A concussion suffered by Matt Murray at the beginning of this month made a crease decision that already seemed obvious an easy one, with Toronto’s Ilya Samsonov pitted against fellow Russian goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“I don’t think about it,” Samsonov said of facing the former Vezina Trophy winner. “I worry about how I’m feeling.”

Tampa has played a lot of hockey since 2020, but still has plenty of its title-winning pieces in place with Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and 51-goal man Brayden Point up front.

“We’re not playing against Vasilevskiy,” Samsonov added. “We’re playing against the full Tampa team.”

With those weighty expectations on their shoulders.

“There’s a lot that goes into being a Maple Leaf, and it’s a special thing,” Keefe said. “Everybody that has the honour to be a part of our organization recognizes what comes with that.”

Tavares said the message when it comes the history and outside chatter is straightforward: “Don’t let the pressure outweigh the pleasure of this opportunity.”

Marner reiterated the focus has to be on the present.

“Can’t look too far ahead, can’t look behind,” he said. “Be in the here and now.”

“Take what you can moving forward,” Matthews added of previous failures. “But we can only focus on what we can control.”

O’Reilly said it’s hard to quantify what it takes for teams to finally break through.

But there’s little doubt once it happens.

“You truly can’t control winning, and that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “Luck is a big part of it, but a lot of the luck comes from the work ethic. You do things the right way, sometimes you get the right bounce that could make a difference. It’s details and building it from there.

“You hope that’s good enough to take that next step.”

The Leafs will soon find out if it’s their turn.

—Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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