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Maple Leafs will have to prove it the hard way after Game 6 loss to Lightning

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It can be far different, and still turn out not to be. This much the Toronto Maple Leafs could prove in their first-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Sure, there have been the same opportunities squandered and many mistakes made, now through six games versus the Lightning. It's possible that a similar team with less baggage and more obvious conviction would have already cleared the monumental hurdle that the two-time defending — and therefore perhaps taxed — Stanley Cup champions can present this time of year.

But unlike it has been in the past, and even when the situation has become unfavourable, or flimsy, and even unfair at times, the moment hasn't appeared too big for Toronto.

It hasn't since this matchup began.

Sometimes, it's just hockey.

The Maple Leafs once again failed to close out a first-round series, and now face a do-or-die Game 7 on Saturday in Toronto. (Getty)
The Maple Leafs once again failed to close out a first-round series, and now face a do-or-die Game 7 on Saturday in Toronto. (Getty)

It was that way in Game 6, when the Maple Leafs had their first of two opportunities to eliminate the Lightning on Thursday night. Toronto played really well, and in many ways rose to the occasion, but lost, failing in a third attempt to string consecutive wins together over the Bolts.

Brayden Point made sure of that in overtime, scoring his second goal of the series in the waning moments of the first bonus frame.

If it were a Leaf, and not Point, in that moment, we would be talking immortality. It would be a Where Were You When situation. But instead of telling tales and reminiscing, a team, and a city, will now be forced to re-visit its trauma in the lead-up to Saturday's Game 7.

It's the sort of context which threatens to make the most difficult of first-round tasks that much more challenging.

Again, it's a situation that feels unfair, because the Leafs haven't been anything like what they were.

In many ways, Game 6 was earmarked as a loss for Toronto as soon as it re-established its advantage in Game 5. Tampa Bay has re-imagined the meaning of resilience in its recent run of dynastic success, bringing a 16-0 record after a loss into the matchup. Andrei Vasilevskiy is a near-unbeatable netminder with his back up against the wall. Amalie Arena is no piece of cake.

Yet, if the Leafs weren't the superior, fresher, hungrier, more inspired team in Game 6, they were irrefutably on par with the Lightning. If it not for some costly blunders, ill-timed infractions, and questionable calls and non-calls from the officials, the Leafs may have won the game, and the series, on merit, in Tampa Bay.

Despite the loss, and the teams continuing to alternate wins and losses, it does seem like the Leafs are finding a stronger foothold as the series goes on.

That's because what needed to turn for the Leafs, now has.

John Tavares has found a life raft and now shore, having added two more goals to his ledger in Game 6 after breaking out two nights before. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner shrugged off the notion that Point and linemate Anthony Cirelli could shut them down, continuing to score and tilt the ice in major minutes, this latest time on away ice. Jack Campbell has answered the bell, the defensive core has rebounded, and the fourth line looked as good as it had in limited minutes.

The list of positives is becoming longer and more detailed.

It just didn't all add up to the advantage on the scoreboard that the Leafs needed in the end.

Now what figures to be the biggest challenge in Game 7 is that more and more traction may matter less. Because while the players themselves won't be concerned with demons, and consequences, and failed promises, and what happened last time they failed to win an elimination Game 6, and all the other narratives that will be discussed in the market, the pressure will be real, and intense, and it's only human nature to understand that it could very well slip away.

Losing in Game 6 in a coin-flip scenario, it's entirely possible that the psychological piece will now be the greatest challenge facing the Leafs.

And only after that it will be Point, Vasilevskiy, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and the best team that salary cap era has ever seen.

If the Leafs are to prove it, it will be the hard way.

This much is for sure.

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