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Why last night’s win over the Isles was really big for the Leafs (and not because they clinched)

Last night’s 2-1 win over the New York Islanders was a really intense game for a lot of people. For John Tavares, he’s still probably not used to thousands of people booing him every time he touches the puck (although he doesn’t need a day after him again). For Calle Rosen, it was his first game of the season, and first goal of his career. For the Leafs, they finally clinched their postseason berth. For Leafs fans, that tiny anxiety in the back of our mind telling us that the Leafs wouldn’t make it can finally go away.

But, it was also a very important win for the Leafs. Not because they clinched a playoff spot. Not because John Tavares scored his first goal against his old team, in the Isles barn, to set a career high in points, AND score the game winner in the game that clinched the Leafs a playoff berth.

It was important because for the first time this season, the Leafs didn’t let the Isles get in their head.

The first two games of the season, the Isles easily beat the Leafs both times, with a 4-0 win in Toronto, and a 6-1 win on home ice in Tavares’ long awaited return. Suddenly, the book was out. The Isles “had the blueprint to beat the Leafs”. The team’s scrappiness and physicality was the perfect counter to the Leafs high-octane offense, many had said.

But, no, that wasn’t the case at all. First off, both games could be considered write-offs because they were on the second half of back to backs, and both saw Garret Sparks in net, so it’s not exactly an ideal spot for the Leafs to be in. It’s not an excuse, but when you’re already a step behind and the team you’re playing is really motivated to beat you, it’s not exactly a recipe for success.

Secondly, this was never about the Isles being better than the Leafs. In fact, they aren’t. Barring a drastic change in the current stats and standings, the Islanders will have the worst CF% among playoff teams, middling xGF% numbers, and the third highest PDO in the league. They are the team making the playoffs off of luck, and will probably be dismantled easily in the first round, although being in the weak Metro division will help their case.

The Isles were as good as they were against the Leafs because they were in the Leafs head. While these games may not have been as notable for the Leafs, it was important for John Tavares, and the Leafs almost “had” to beat the Isles for JT. Suddenly, the 4-0 game happens and they don’t show up. Expectations are higher in New York, but the crowd made it even easier for the Isles to get in the Leafs head.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a team get in this iteration of the Leafs’ heads. The Bruins were all over the Leafs for most of the first round series last year, especially on home ice, and that carried over into this season as well, with the Bruins winning the season series 3-1, including 2-0 at home in a 5-1 rout, and a 6-3 win that saw them take a 6-1 lead at one point.

It’s not that this team can’t step up to big challenges either. Both games in Tampa Bay were some of the best that this team has played this season, and they’ve swept the Jets, Golden Knights, and Sharks, and split their series with the Flames, so they can play against the big boys. They also got swept by the Preds, but they got goalied in both of them, and Hutch started for the 4-0 loss.

It’s because they have demons against the Bruins and Isles. The Bruins are to the Leafs like the Penguins were to the Capitals, so they’re in their head until they beat them in the playoffs. The Isles were a demon for Tavares, and it’s only fitting that he overcame that demon on a day where the Leafs secured their spot against the Bruins in the first round.

The Leafs proved to us last night that they can beat a team that’s “in their heads”, which is what makes it so important for them as the playoffs start in just over a week. They defeated their demons with the Islanders, and now it’s time for them to do the same against the Bruins.