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

Ryan O’Reilly felt the pressure shortly after stepping into his new locker room.

A proud franchise stained by a long string of postseason failures — and without a Stanley Cup since 1967 — the latest Leafs crumble under the weight of expectations in a hockey-obsessed market.

O’Reilly, a Stanley Cup winner from the St. Louis Blues in a blockbuster trade in February, was part of a team that finally made it through 2019.

Toronto’s core, led by star forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, hopes to take their first step — winning the playoffs.

It’s been a frustrating, headache-inducing conundrum so far.

Unable to make the playoffs since 2004, the Leafs have squandered a lot of opportunities lately as they prepared to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in a rematch of their first-round series last spring.

Toronto beat the Boston Bruins 3-2 in 2019 but lost in seven games, fell 3-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a qualifying round necessitated by the 2020 pandemic, and is 3-0 in 2021. 1 ahead of the Montreal Canadiens.

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

The pressure is real in Tuesday’s opener against the Chargers at Scotiabank Arena.

O’Reilly watched the Leafs’ tormented talent deal with reality before Toronto’s latest playoff offense kicked off.

He left impressed.

“It’s hockey’s mecca, and they’re under pressure,” said the veteran forward, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2019 as playoff MVP. “But the way they dealt with it was very mature. You could tell the mentality was right.

“Winning won’t be easy, but I think we have a good chance of winning. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

The Leafs, who are 0-9 since 2018 and have a shot at knocking out their playoff opponents, will once again be looking to exorcise their playoff specter in seven games against Tampa, a team that had a 2020 and Won the cup in 2021 before reaching last year’s final.

O’Reilly was a big part of the midseason rebuild, a string of trades that also saw forwards Noel Acchari and Sam Rafferty and defensemen Jack McCabe, Luke Shine and Eric Gustafsson also joined the lineup.

“We had a really good team last year,” Blues veteran Mark Giordano said. “We’re there. But all the players we’ve brought in are really good players who step in and give us more depth.”

Before the Seattle Kraken’s trade deadline last season, Giordano also realized that Toronto’s core was really tired of talking about all the problems that came up.

“It’s bad … it’s clearly there,” he said. “This time of year (you) erase everything from the past.

“It’s all about success in the playoffs right now.”

Chargers head coach Jon Cooper recently noted that for all the changes to Toronto’s roster, the bottom line remains the same.

“Definitely a different team,” he said. “But in the end, it’s Matthews, Mana, Tavares, Nyland … going down the list.

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

The Leafs are second in the Atlantic Division this season, behind the Presidents Cup-winning Boston Bruins and months ahead of Tampa.

The slow march allowed head coach Sheldon Keefe to tinker with his forward line and defensive mix and give players rest and recovery time when needed.

The concussion suffered by Matt Murray earlier this month made what already looked like an obvious crease decision, an easy one, with Toronto’s Ilya Samsonov taking on Russian goalkeeper Andrei Vasiliev. ski.

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

Tampa has played a lot of hockey since 2020 and still has a lot of titles, including Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and 51-ball player Braden Pointer.

“We’re not playing Vasilevsky,” Samsonov added. “We’re playing against the entire Tampa team.”

With heavy expectations on your shoulders.

“Being a Maple Leaf has so many elements, and it’s a special thing,” Keefe said. “Everyone who has been fortunate enough to be a part of our organization recognizes what comes with it.”

When it comes to history and outside chatter, Tavares said, the message is simple: “Don’t let the pressure outweigh the fun of this opportunity.”

Marner reiterated that the focus must be on the present.

“You can’t look too far ahead and you can’t look back,” he said. “Living in the moment.”

“Do what you can to move forward,” Matthews added of the previous defeat. “But we can only focus on the things we can control.”

O’Reilly said it’s difficult to quantify what it will take for the team to eventually make a breakthrough.

But when it happens, there’s no question about it.

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

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

The leaves will soon know if it’s their turn.

—Joshua Clipperton, Canadian Press


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