One loss doesn’t seem like much. Throughout an 82-game regular-season schedule, all teams are going to have the occasional dud. But it can set off the alarm bells when it’s a blowout against the 2 times defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and your potential first-round playoff opponent.
Add this to the fact that your team has lost in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for five straight years. You also play in a market scrutinized like no other where decisions on fourth-line scratches are front-page news. Oh, and your team has a championship drought well into its sixth decade.
Welcome to life in the fishbowl of Toronto. One moment the sun is shining, the next, clouds begin to hover. The Leafs need to show that the 8-1 drubbing at the hands of the Lightning was only a blip. Otherwise, the pressure on this team to win will only mount before the playoffs even get started.
Toronto Maple Leafs First Round Pressure Always There
The moment the Leafs blew a three games to one series lead against the Montreal Canadiens last year, everyone immediately turned their attention to next year’s playoffs. This defeat came after losing to a lesser-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets team in the first round the year prior. In addition, the Blue Jackets beat them by showing grit and guile, something critics of the Leafs say they lack.
During the early years of the Auston Matthews–Mitch Marner era, fans of the team were happy to make the playoffs. Taking the veteran Washington Capitals to six games before losing was considered a positive step for the team. Next was back-to-back exits in 2018 and 2019 to the Boston Bruins. Not great, but perhaps understandable. However, after losing to the Blue Jackets and Canadiens as favourites, patience has left the building. Rightly or wrongly, another first-round loss will have “Leafs Nation” demanding change.
Doubts Will Only Increase
This week’s finish to the regular season will determine just how much pressure the players on the roster will face before the opening of the playoffs in May. The “gorilla” on the back of the five first-round losses is plenty. It’s also safe to say that not one of the Leafs’ stars or core players has a history of being a playoff performer. There was also the recent 7-6 overtime loss to the conference-leading Florida Panthers. A loss more difficult to take because it came after blowing a four-goal lead.
Imagine for a moment, that the Leafs lose again to the Panthers and their NHL’s best home record. Then, lose to the Capitals on the second night of a back-to-back, with their backup goalie who still might have a neck strain from retrieving pucks out of the net against the Lightning. Perhaps, the Leafs collect a win against the Detroit Red Wings, but lose to their playoff nemesis Bruins. Of course, this is a completely pessimistic view of the final four games, but it’s not implausible.
In addition, superstar Matthews’ chase for sixty goals has been overshadowed by the secrecy surrounding his injury. Until he returns to the lineup and looks like his dominant self, worries will remain.
Fans Will Forget Successful Season
Despite the success the Leafs have had during the regular season there is still some work to be done. Clinching home-ice advantage for the first round is important. Of greater importance is the vibe around the team. Setting a positive tone leading to the playoffs is a must.
Have a disastrous week and the fans and media might soon forget about the franchise record number of wins and points achieved during the regular season. Matthews’ goal-scoring records and Marner’s magical season won’t be the talk of the town. Instead, the break before the regular season and playoffs will be spent dissecting the Leafs’ warts and failures. It won’t lessen the pressure on this team. It would be a long week in the fishbowl.