I never really got behind the concept of “must-win” games. They’re always trotted out for meaningless regular season games against teams fighting for the same spot in the standings.
Late in the season, I heard the term “must-win” trotted out for the Maple Leafs game at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers. The Leafs lost in a shootout but didn’t drop in the standings, and held the five-seed to the end of the year.
Toronto didn’t have a lot of “must-win” games this year though, even in the clichéd sense. For all the talk about how tight the standings would be in a short season, by the final week of the season it was pretty apparent who would land the low seeds in the East.
Tonight though, is a must-win game for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
So far, none of the three teams facing elimination in the playoffs have been able to stave it off. Vancouver blew a lead and lost an overtime game in the fourth game against the San Jose Sharks, and the Montreal Canadiens and Minnesota Wild got blown out by the Ottawa Senators and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively.
“The fourth game’s always the hardest one to get,” Marchand said from the center of a giant semicircle of cameras and voice recorders. As he finished his sentence, confetti rained down from the ceiling of the Bruins’ locker room, a banner saying “ONE MILLION!” unfurled, and a marching band entered, playing Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration.” It was a magical moment, if completely imaginary, for the millionth utterance of one of hockey’s grandest cliches.
Jesse goes on to note that the fourth game is not, in fact, the hardest to win. Teams up 3-1 have a .576 winning percentage, the second-highest win percentage behind just 3-0 (.628). After that it’s 3-2 (.566).
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Leafs are screwed. Macro-analysis doesn’t work when looking at individual games, or even, seven game series’. Jesse’s point is moreso that the things you hear from players aren’t necessarily truth. Bill James once wrote that sports clichés are “the soldiers of ignorance” and they take root in the playoffs.
Really what a playoff game comes down to is which team is fortunate-enough to capitalize on their opportunities. The Leafs were able to do that all season but that hasn’t carried over to the playoffs just yet.
Both teams’ lineups will change out of necessity for this one. The Leafs will insert defenceman John-Michael Liles in on the third pairing due to Mark Fraser suffering a fracture to his forehead in Game 4, and the Bruins will add an undisclosed defenceman (perhaps Dougie Hamilton) due to Wade Redden suffering some sort of lower body injury in that same game.
(Toronto recalled Jesse Blacker and Boston recalled Matt Bartkowski on Thursday to give them some insurance on the back end.)
I think John-Michael Liles is a fine defenceman, and I like the prospect of Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson getting a good look together. The two were dominant (+4 in rebound-adjusted scoring chance differential in Game 4) in the eight shifts they were together in the fourth game of the series. Franson is mischaracterized as an offensive defenceman. He’s the biggest Leafs’ blue-liner who can skate (Ryan O’Byrne is 6’5″, 234) and last game had a sequence where he overpowered Milan Lucic trying to drive to the net.
The important thing to note is that Cody Franson has been very good all season despite playing with an AHLer on his opposite side. Unfortunate circumstances forced the Leafs to try something new on the second pair and it worked out.
I can’t find whether the Leafs are flipping around forward units or not. I’d love to see Joe Colborne come in for Colton Orr and give the Leafs four real lines to play with. Orr was benched after his dumb penalty in Game 3 and should stay benched. He’s a minor penalty waiting to happen. He’s not intimidating Chara, who has had a great series, and he hasn’t even fought yet. What’s he doing there, anyway?
Time to burn some boats. It’s the last time until October unless the Leafs can get the bounces they didn’t get on Wednesday…
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