This isn’t going to be a long post so let’s just get into it. If you’re reading this from a Leafs-centric perspective you already know all about what’s upon us in the next 24-hours. Toronto and Boston, game seven at TD Garden, serious stress, doubts, thoughts of blown third period leads. You likely already have a doomsday script drafted in your head about how this is all going to go. We don’t need to get into all that again.
The bottom line is the Leafs have one game they need to win, and as far as game sevens go, this one probably weighs more than the others. The now-wide open playoff brackets, the doubt that surrounded the team as they sputtered the last couple months of the regular season; Even a semi-deep playoff run would put a lot of minds at ease about what seems to be a somewhat unhappy season in Toronto. There’s questions about coaching, questions about free agents, overpaid veterans, you name it. One win does a lot to cool a lot of that down, if not for management then at least for the fanbase and national media.
This is a big one.
That’s why Mike Babcock, as polarizing as his player usage decisions have been, needs to throw everything on his own players and let them decide this result. Tomorrow night the Leafs need to trim down their bench and run the big guns until they can’t run anymore. An already-11-million dollar center and a soon-to-be are on this roster in Tavares and Matthews, both should see a ton of ice in Boston.
To this point in the series #91 and #34 have floated around 20 minutes of ice-time in the six games leading us here. Tomorrow it has to be different. The Leafs have decent depth in their lineup, but they’re fortunate enough to also be a top heavy team; 25 shifts apiece for their top two centers shouldn’t be enough for game seven. Everything in the tank needs to be emptied.
Should the Leafs be fortunate enough go through, we don’t know when things would start against Columbus, but I’d bet on them getting at least two days off, before starting out on home ice no less. And even if that isn’t the case and it’s a quick turnaround, who cares? The alternative to being tired for game one is having no hockey to play at all.
The bench simply has to be shortened, in a few different ways.
The powerplay? Babcock has to stop wasting time by splitting things evenly with the second unit and just let the top guys stay out there for 1:30 or so. Frederik Gauthier’s 12 shifts a game? Those should be all but gone, given to Matthews and Tavares, even if Moore and Ennis can keep a few by slotting in with those two top guys. Last minute of a period, maybe load up a Tavares-Matthews-Marner super line. Pucks have gone to die on the sticks of Marleau and Brown in this series, so unless they’re providing a breather for the stars, relying on them to get anything going offensively just shouldn’t be in the cards. Chasing a comeback after the mid-point of the game? Staple them to the bench and get Nylander some looks higher in the lineup. Marleau played over 17 minutes in game six, including plenty of shifts when the Leafs were trying to notch things up in the dying minutes. The 11 minutes he played in game three seems like a better idea, the speed and tenacity just isn’t there.
And the thing is, Babcock has his own thing to gain from approaching game seven by running his high-paid stars to their limit. These guys no doubt want to play as much as possible, and by sending them out there over and over, it at least takes the heat off the coach and puts it more so on the players to simply get the job done. Maybe they lose, but at least they do it with the best players making their own mistakes. If we look back on this game in the summer, it would be better to see it as the stars perhaps being not quite ready to get over the top yet, rather than wondering if they were given enough opportunity to do so. Empty the tank and let this supposedly revered core of stars decide things on their own. No one could fault Babcock for doing that, no matter how it all goes down.