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It’s business as usual for the Toronto Maple Leafs ahead of Game 1 of Stanley Cup playoffs

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Steven Ellis
10 months ago
Every year, the same question arises: will the Toronto Maple Leafs finally end the playoff curse?
First, it was just about making it on a consistent basis. The Auston Matthews era made that a reality. Then, it was about becoming one of the biggest forces in the Eastern Conference. Yet again, they’ve conquered that.
But none of it matters if you can’t finally escape the first step of the NHL’s postseason, something the team has failed to do since 2004. Thanks to the divisional format, if the Leafs are going to make it out of the Atlantic this year, they’ll have to beat Tampa Bay and, likely, Boston, two teams that have caused more than their fair share of misery over the past few years.
This year has to be different. The Leafs are the higher-ranked team again, coming in as favorites against a Tampa team that has been to the Stanley Cup final the past three years, winning it twice.
Realistically, playoff hockey should be no different than the rest of the year. The stakes are much, much higher, but it’s still the same game. It’s still hockey. But nobody knows pressure like the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they’re hopeful they can finally end the curse, starting with a win on Tuesday in Game 1 at Scotiabank Arena.
“You come to the rink and it’s a different feel,” defenseman Mark Giordano told reporters on Tuesday. “The guys have put in a lot of good work the last few days, but nothing compares to walking in the morning of Game 1.”
“Generally, you just try to make it seem as much like a regular game day,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I just think our guys have been very business-like…The guys just have a quiet confidence about them. They’re going through their routines.”
Tampa’s core has remained relatively the same the past few years. Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov are still the leaders up front. Victor Hedman is still a behemoth. Andrei Vasilevskiy is still an elite goaltender. But the Leafs enter with as much depth as they’ve had in recent years, and they feel ready for the challenge ahead.
“There’s not a whole lot different. They still have their main pieces,” captain John Tavares said. “They’re still a tremendous hockey team with tremendous self-belief. It’s going to be a tough test and we’re excited for it.”
For some players, Game 1 means something different. That includes defenseman Luke Schenn, who won two Cups with the Bolts. But now he’s back with the team that drafted him fifth overall in 2008, but never got to play in the playoffs with during some dark times for the squad.
“Better late than never, I guess,” Schenn said before his Leafs playoff debut. “It’s everything you dream of. I couldn’t be more proud to be given this opportunity here, at this stage of my career.”
The Leafs were the higher seed all season long. Tampa faltered near the end of the season, but they’re still the Tampa Bay Lightning. Bet against them at your own peril. But for Toronto, the motivation has to be at an all-time high. They’ve better than the Bolts this year, simple as that. The team is as well-rounded as it gets, with solid depth at every position. They’re quite healthy too, with Matt Murray – who might have just ended up being the third-stringer, anyways – being the most notable name out of the lineup.
But none of this matters if the Leafs can’t finally cut through the tangled mess they’ve gotten themselves into over the past 20 years.
The crowd will be hyped up at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday, with a capacity crowd expected inside and out. In a way, the vibes just feel different this year. The players are relaxed. They’ve had months to think about this specific matchup. Diehard fans understand the opponent and the challenges associated with it. And the players know just how important it would be to dethrone one of the best teams we’ve seen in the salary cap era.
“The stakes are always high. The goal is the same for all 16 teams, to win. You always want to be the winner… This is when the real season starts, if you will.”

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