Time and time again, referring to his preference to view the regular season in five-game chunks, Mike Babcock has been letting us in on more than just his handy tool to help gauge the finish line.
This compartmentalization method encompasses the mindset and poise he’s been imparting on his players – an ultra focus. Results don’t affect mood in Babcock’s world. There are no ups and downs. Win or lose, park it and move on.
Send 40,000-plus slightly frostbitten fans at BMO Field into hysteria with the most dramatic conclusion to the Centennial Classic? Hey, we’re on to Washington. Author the greatest rookie season in franchise history? A credit to one’s linemates, of course.
We could go on.
But back to Babcock’s logic for a moment. On the heels of two consecutive losses, the Maple Leafs wound up falling short of their targeted total, registering 93 points from the 16 completed five-game segments over the course of the season.
However, here’s the thing about coach’s system: it leaves room for a two-game margin for error.
So on night No. 81, which managed to be both tortured-filled and the absolute ultimate, the Maple Leafs punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a thrilling 5-3 comeback win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. They are returning to the dance for the first time in four seasons, and for just the second time since the NHL locked out its players 13 years ago.
Local kid Connor Brown’s eventual game winner with two minutes and 48 seconds remaining – a goal that officially marked the completion of a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that ripped it down to the studs no less than two years ago – meant that it was finally time to stop and smell the roses after maintaining this blinded focus for the last seven months.
“Absolutely,” said the understandably excited Brown, before stopping to remind himself that Sunday’s regular-season finale versus the Columbus Blue Jackets holds major significance.
“Another big game tomorrow for positioning. There’s not much time to savour (accomplishments) in this league,” he corrected, “but it’s definitely gratifying.”
Until Kasperi Kapanen scored an extraordinarily timely first NHL goal to equalize with a little over five minutes remaining in a contest fraught with misfortune for the Maple Leafs (none greater, of course, than Curtis McElhinney having to replace starter Frederik Andersen after he was blindsided by contact from bruiser Tom Sestito), Sunday’s game was trending toward becoming Toronto’s fourth and final attempt to seal the win that would clinch its postseason berth.
A failure then might have made the infamous 4-1 collapse in Boston seem trivial, at least if only momentarily.
Now instead, two points over the Blue Jackets could change the entire perspective surrounding their postseason bid. The Maple Leafs would skip ahead of the Bruins, which would see them avoid the juggernaut Washington Capitals in the first round, and re-ignite the Battle of Ontario in a first-round clash with a beat-up Ottawa Senators team.
That was the only thing on the mind of Auston Matthews, who reached the 40-goal mark in his superlative rookie season when he iced the game with his first empty netter on the year.
“We still got a job to do,” said Matthews. “Big points on the line to put ourselves in the third spot in the Atlantic Division.
“We want to enjoy this for a little bit and then get ready for tomorrow.”
Throughout the entire week, not a single Maple Leafs player, coach, or staffer revealed anything but unrelenting confidence as the results from inside the Air Canada Centre and across the league all seemed to wind up in another team’s favour.
It was almost becoming worrisome that the players seemed cavalier as their near-definite odds to make the postseason began to dwindle.
It wasn’t until the moments after Saturday’s win did Babcock finally admit that the stakes were affecting the performance of his players – not the scheduling or the quality of their opponents.
For this reason, he was willing to assert that the Maple Leafs would put forth a far better effort Sunday despite potentially being without Andersen on the second half of a back-to-back against a quality opponent.
He likes their chances.
Perhaps then the Maple Leafs will finally have the opportunity to indulge in one of those rare moments to truly savour.
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