A couple years spent falling short of expectations, an embarrassing first round loss, an abysmal start to the new season, and then suddenly becoming the NHL’s hottest team. It’s a sequence of events both the 2021/2022 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 2019/2020 Tampa Bay Lightning took that got fans excited that this year may be different. For Tampa Bay, that sequence ended with the Lightning winning their second ever Stanley Cup, and then repeating as champions the following season. For Toronto, the end result is still waiting to be seen.
It’s hard not to notice the parallels between the path that these two teams took after one of the most embarrassing first round exits in franchise history. Much like how Toronto entered last season’s matchup against Montreal as heavy favourites, Tampa Bay was expected to walk all over Columbus during the 2019 playoffs. Instead, the Lightning were not only swept by the lowly eight seed but were absolutely dominated in the process, getting outscored 19-8.
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The next season, the question on everyone’s mind was how Tampa Bay would redeem themselves after a monumental choke that was only made worse by one of the most mocked social media posts in NHL history. Tampa Bay failed to redeem themselves out of the gate, losing half of their games through the first two months of the season, leading many to wonder if the Lightning had been exposed as frauds.
However, it wasn’t long before Tampa Bay proved the doubters wrong, seeming to raise their game to a level that even the most diehard fans didn’t expect. A ten game winning streak midway through the season kicked off two years of dominance culminating in back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.
A third of the way through the season, and so far Toronto seems to be following a similar path. After a slow start to the season that caused fans and pundits alike to question whether there was something fundamentally broken within this team followed by the hottest run in franchise history, winning 15 of 17 games.
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Of course, if Toronto once again flounders in the open round of the postseason this will all be for nothing. However, it’s impossible to watch this team and not notice that something seems different about them. Last year’s embarrassment seems to have been the wake up call that the Toronto Maple Leafs needed as a franchise, and much like Tampa Bay did, the team seems determined to prove to the hockey world that they refuse to spend another year as a punchline.
Many of the most common criticisms of the team have been addressed. The Maple Leafs are playing with consistency, they’re starting games on time, they’re fighting back against opponents who get rough, they’re scoring gritty goals, and perhaps most importantly of all, they’re taking every game seriously.
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In recent years, Toronto had a terrible habit of underestimating weaker opponents while also seeming to quit against tougher opponents any time things got tough. Those two together have combined for a greatest hits compilation of some of the worst collapses in franchise history. We saw it when the Leafs didn’t take Columbus or Montreal seriously in the postseason. We saw it every time the team fell behind early and seemed to give up, assuming the game had already been lost. And we saw it all culminate together when Toronto scored two quick goals against David Ayres and then simultaneously got complacent that it would be an easy win while also folding into themselves the moment that the Carolina Hurricanes began pushing back.
We haven’t seen it much at all recently though.
Over the past month the Maple Leafs have lost only three games. The only really bad loss came earlier this week against the Winnipeg Jets, a game that was their third in four nights, on the road, and less than 24 hours after a hard fought game in Minnesota where the team battled back from a 3-0 deficit to steal a point in the standings.
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Even while losing to the Jets, the team showed they had fight in them both literally and on the scoresheet. After going down 5-1 just halfway through the game, the Leafs of old may have quit right then and hoped things would go better next time. But Toronto continued to work and were rewarded with two quick goals that got them right back into the game by the end of the second period.
When things started to get rough, Toronto fought back, showing that they had the grit and fire behind their eyes that many fans donned in Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour jerseys have claimed the team has been lacking. Two nights later, Toronto came out ready for redemption with a bounceback game and by the end of the second period, they were the ones holding onto the 5-1 lead.
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Throughout this season, the rallying cry of many Leafs fans has been that nothing matters until they get to the playoffs. While that may be true, it’s also become quite clear to those paying attention that this is a squad that has looked like a playoff team for the better part of the season to this point.
For the first time in over a decade, the Toronto Maple Leafs look like they care. The whole team looks like they want to win and everyone has bought in from the high-earning stars to the rotation guys getting moved in and out of the lineup as needed. Coach Sheldon Keefe deserves significant credit for making sure the team is never satisfied, and that their focus remains on the end goal of always improving, and not getting complacent.
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A number of times this season, Keefe has addressed the media following wins by saying he wasn’t happy with what he saw out there. Even after last night’s win over Columbus, a game where Toronto seemed to dominate their opponents through the first two frames, the coaching staff saw improvements that needed to be made in all three periods. Those who have been following postgame media scrums may have even noticed several players making comments that suggest there’s been a culture shift during practice, and the team is now learning to never take their foot off the gas.
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Wayne Gretzky has credited getting swept in the 1983 Stanley Cup finals by the New York Islanders as teaching the Edmonton Oilers what it takes to win after witnessing how beat up and exhausted New York’s players were in their dressing room after the final game. Edmonton saw that the Islanders had taken their game to another level, suffered way more as a result, and that’s why they were champions. New York could hardly celebrate due to the energy they had put into the game, and yet the Oilers were walking out of the rink like it was any other game. It was a wakeup call for the whole team.
While no one is claiming that the Toronto Maple Leafs will become the next 80’s Oilers, it does feel like the same kind of heartbreaking loss that woke up the Edmonton Oilers and Tampa Bay Lightning decades later, may have had a similar effect on the Maple Leafs. 
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