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Win or lose, the Leafs benefit regardless of what happens in Game 5

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY
Alex Hobson
1 month ago
The reality that the Toronto Maple Leafs were facing the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs provided just as much fear as it did optimism. Sure, the Leafs haven’t played the Bruins in the playoffs since 2018-19. Sure, the makeup of the team that season was largely different, outside of the Core 4 and Morgan Rielly. Sure, the Bruins wouldn’t have the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, and David Krejci as they did the other three times the Leafs faced them in the playoffs.
But in the end, these were the Boston Bruins. A longtime playoff demon for the Leafs, representing a mountain they’ve yet to figure out how to climb. And here we are ten days after Game 1, having the familiar old conversations that tend to arise every time this team fails to get it done in the playoffs. Can the Leafs really justify running it back with the same core again? What would this series look like with a stud goaltender? What’s the defence going to look like next year? And the funniest part is that they aren’t even eliminated yet.
Let’s be honest, it’s hard to drum up any sort of confidence that the Leafs are going to win this series at this point, and fans who don’t have hope shouldn’t be shamed for their feelings. We’re talking about a team that’s struggled mightily on special teams and in net, and a core group of players that are once again being shut down as the games get tighter. William Nylander just made his way back from a mystery injury after missing the first three games, Mitch Marner was seen throwing his gloves on the bench in frustration, and Auston Matthews is now dealing with an illness that was bad enough to pull him from Game 4 and leave him questionable for Game 5. All of these hurdles to jump, and I haven’t even mentioned that the Leafs need to beat Boston three times in a row if they want to advance to the second round two years in a row.
I’m positive that there are going to be some clicks from people who read the headline and assume that I’m displaying complacency. That if the Leafs lose, it’s just another tough break for a resilient group that will have to take another kick at the can in 2025. In reality, it’s the opposite. There’s a positive for the Leafs in each possible outcome of this series, and to me, only one of them involves running back the same core next season.
That, of course, would be the outcome where the Leafs are able to pull off some sort of miracle run and do the sheer impossible; taking down the Bruins three games in a row and exercising their playoff demons in the most dramatic way possible. Considering the struggles on special teams so far, the likely absence of Matthews in Game 5, and the fact that they haven’t been able to solve Jeremy Swayman yet, they’ve got just about all of the odds stacked against them. There’s always the possibility that Joseph Woll pulls a Sergei Bobrovsky from last season and single-handedly turns the series around, but that’s a lot to ask of a guy who only has 37 NHL games to his name.
No matter how tough the task seems right now, we wouldn’t be doing a fair analysis without at least mentioning the possibility. Anything is possible in the NHL. I don’t know how many people expected the Bruins to choke away their 3-1 series lead to the eighth-seed Florida Panthers and lose in seven games last season, and no matter how cursed the Leafs are on paper, you can’t write anything off. They would have to find a way to at least marginally improve their special teams, they would need a near-perfect performance from Woll, and they would need the entire team to flip a switch and play at a level not even in the same stratosphere as the effort they gave in Game 4.
Either way, it’s going to be about as difficult as it gets for the Leafs to pull off that comeback. This brings us to the other, and more likely outcome, which is a loss in any of Games 5, 6, or 7. If this happens, it seems likelier than ever that this will be the final straw for this group of players. And that should be seen as a win, as morbid as it might be.
Elliotte Friedman floated his belief that the Core would be blown up if the Leafs don’t pull off this comeback on the most recent episode of 32 Thoughts and raised a couple of good points. Namely, the contract situations for both Marner and John Tavares. You would think that after they ran it back following the 2020-21 series collapse against the Montreal Canadiens, there would be no world where they’d ever part with their belief in the Core 4, but between Marner and Tavares only having one year left on their contracts, a new GM being at the helm, and a new CEO at the forefront of MLSE, this doesn’t feel like your typical Kyle Dubas/Sheldon Keefe end of season press conference if the Leafs fail to get it done eight years in a row.
Either way, and maybe this is a total coping mechanism, but it looks like no matter what happens in this series, the Leafs are destined for something big to happen to the organization. Whether that’s in the form of a world-breaking, impossible three-win comeback against the Bruins to knock them out in the first round and shed every notion out there that they can’t get it done against that team, or a long-awaited divorce between the Leafs and their standard Core 4 we’ve gotten so used to over the past few years, it doesn’t feel like there’s any outcome that won’t result in either significant progress or a proper addressing of the team’s foundation.
The Leafs are confident that they can beat Boston, and they should be. If you’re not confident against your playoff opponent, you may as well cut the theatrics and skip to the handshake line. But it’s going to take more than confidence for the Leafs to pull this off. It’s going to take confidence, execution, and a total team-buy in. If they don’t bring all of these elements to the rest of this series, whether in Game 5 or a possible Game 6 or 7, they’re not going anywhere. Let’s see how bad this team wants it, and how much they want to remain a group.

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