Johnston: The stakes couldn't be higher for this group, especially Leafs' core
The Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning (optional) skated at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.
The Leafs have been outscored 18-6 while losing do-or-die games in four straight playoff series. Toronto mustered just two goals in the last three winner-take-all affairs.
"We came out a little flat in those games, maybe a little bit scared to lose," admitted William Nylander. "We don't need to be scared to lose. We got a great team and the best team will win tonight."
The Leafs held a full skate on Saturday morning ahead of Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the atmosphere appeared to be loose. Players were even doing the "Soooooup" cheer when Jack Campbell made a nice save.
The Leafs held an optional skate ahead of Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens last year with most of the regulars staying off the ice.
Leafs giving Jack Campbell some “Sooooup” cheers after saves at the morning skate pic.twitter.com/gP6TIPp5Mr— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) May 14, 2022
"There's always going to be nerves so it's just embracing it," said winger Mitch Marner, who has one assist in the last three games. "We're not going to talk about the past. We just got to think about the here and now and focus on this. It's a great opportunity at hand. We got to be ready for the opportunity and take it head on and not shy away from this light. We're excited for it."
"The mood's great," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "I mean, I don't sense any nerves. I just sense confidence and excitement."
Is the coach managing any nerves?
"Don't have any," he said. "This is as confident as I've been coaching this team."
Keefe, Matthews all smiles as Leafs skate gets underway pic.twitter.com/FGGf8G4NNQ— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) May 14, 2022
The Leafs have looked like a different and more complete team for much of this season. Toronto established franchise records in points and wins and earned home-ice advantage in this opening round.
"It's obviously a different group," Marner stressed, "different people in the locker room. We did different things this year, just accomplishing better things, and we got a confidence in there. So, it's just making sure we bring that confidence on the ice and knowing what we can do."
The Leafs have responded well every time Tampa has pushed back in this series.
"Both teams have knocked the other on their ass a little bit," Keefe noted. "Both teams have picked themselves up and continued to go at it. We've been right there with the back-to-back champs and our guys have grown a ton of confidence by knowing they belong in this moment."
The Lightning can lean on their experience, including a Game 7 win in the Stanley Cup semifinal against the New York Islanders last year.
"Experience doesn't win you the game, but it sure can help when times are trying," said coach Jon Cooper. "You can't let the moment become too big for you. That's a big message for the guys ... don't let the moment consume you."
Andrei Vasilevskiy has emerged as the ultimate playoff closer by recording shutouts in Tampa's last five close-out games, including twice in the Stanley Cup final. However, the Lightning goalie hasn't been at his best in this series, posting an .885 save percentage.
"All I know about Vasi is when the lights are shining the brightest he seems to stand and play his best," Cooper said. "I've seen it time and time again and I expect no different tonight."
The Leafs are looking to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, but the Lightning also have a lot at stake. No team has won three straight championships since the Islanders in the early 1980s.
"I don't want anybody to sit here and say, 'Well, is it easier because we've won two Cups? If the Leafs get the best of us tonight that's OK.' That's BS. We're standing here, like, on the cusp of greatness and why the hell wouldn't we charge through that door."
This will be the first time the Leafs play a Game 7 in front of a packed house in Toronto since 2004 when they beat the Ottawa Senators.
Marner is expecting a "crazy" atmosphere much like what the Toronto Raptors enjoyed during their run to the 2019 NBA title.
"I was here for a lot of those Raps games when they had some crazy games and the atmosphere was pretty unbelievable," Marner said. "I'm sure the city will be buzzing."
Keefe called the crowd the "first star" in the Game 1 win and also felt the partisans helped his team pull off a comeback in Game 5.
"I know our fans are going to bring it tonight," Keefe said.
The Lightning hope to turn this into an uncomfortable environment for the Leafs by getting off to a good start.
"The one thing about crowds, they can pump you up and they can also make you nervous as hell," Cooper pointed out. "Your play as the visiting team can dictate that."
There has been a consistent parade to the penalty box throughout the series. Toronto has taken 41 penalties, which leads the playoffs. The Lightning have taken 36 penalties.
"Our expectation is they're going to call penalties," said Keefe. "They're going to call infractions and we got to be responsible with our sticks. We got to move our feet. We got to establish body positioning and, at the same time, we can't get distracted or lose focus on how the game is or isn't called. There's enough distractions and things going on outside of our control as it is."
Wes McCauley and Eric Furlatt will be holding the whistles on Saturday in Toronto.
"It's not a surprise that you get two of the most veteran referees that are going to do the game tonight," Keefe said. "They're going to do a good job and their best job of calling what needs to be called, but allowing the game to be played. That's my expectation."
Game 7 officials for the @TBLightning @MapleLeafs are #4 Wes McCauley, #27 Eric Furlatt #50 Scott Cherry #71 Brad Kovachik Not surprised as these 4 officials are considered 4 of the best in the #NHL #leafs #Lightning— Tim Peel (@TimCPeel20) May 14, 2022
Corey Perry spoke to the media before Game 2, Game 4 and Game 6 – all Lightning wins – so it was no surprise to see the veteran winger back at the podium on Saturday morning. This will be the 10th Game 7 of his career.
"Game 7s are exciting," Perry said. "You never know what can happen ... This is where names are made. You show up for a Game 7 you're going to be a remembered."
Perry scored in Game 7 against the Leafs last year when he played for the Montreal Canadiens.
Marner's stick broke when he received a pass during a power-play drill. Good luck to get that out of the way at the morning skate?
"It's the first time," he said, "so we'll see."
Is a broken stick at the morning skate good luck?— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) May 14, 2022
Mitch Marner: It’s the first time so we’ll see
This was during power play reps 👇 pic.twitter.com/P2ohKWGEtM
Leafs lines at Saturday's morning skate:
Bunting - Matthews - Marner
Mikheyev - Tavares - Kerfoot
Nylander - Kampf - Engvall
Spezza - Blackwell - Kase
Rielly - Lyubushkin
Muzzin - Brodie
Giordano - Holl
Power play units at Saturday's morning skate:
Flanks: Matthews, Marner
Net front: Tavares
Flanks: Spezza, Brodie
Net front: Bunting