It came off as overly simplistic, but it was perfectly stated.
“The most fun you’re ever going to have playing hockey is a Game 7,” Ben Chiarot said on Sunday, just a dozen hours after playing close to 36 minutes in the Montreal Canadiens‘ season-saving 3-2 overtime win at the Bell Centre. “The key is you go in and play loose. It’s a high-pressure situation. Guys tend to get tight. It’s about staying loose, playing the game and enjoying it.”
If you had to wager on whether or not it would be his Canadiens or the Toronto Maple Leafs finding a way to do that on Monday, who would you choose?
Let’s put it this way: You don’t see any Canadiens fans littering Brendan Gallagher’s Instagram posts with abusive and threatening comments right now.
Sure, the 29-year-old missed the last six weeks of the regular season with a broken thumb and then dove into this series having played just a warmup with the AHL’s Laval Rocket, and there’s been some grace extended to him by Canadiens fans because of it. But they also know Gallagher’s earning $3.75 million this year to put the puck in the net, that he signed a six-year, $39-million extension that only kicks in next off-season, that he’s supposed to be the heart and soul of the Canadiens and he’s got zero points in this series — or four fewer than Toronto’s Mitch Marner has in as many games.
Conversely, type “Marner” into your search window on Twitter and see what pops up.
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Actually, maybe just use your imagination, because it’s a veritable cesspool not worth dipping into.
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said on Sunday that blocking out the noise has been a point of emphasis with his team since training camp got underway in January. He said, “there’s no more important time than to do that here right now,” when he was asked about the scorn Marner faced after he struggled mightily in Game 6 and took a needless penalty that cost his team a goal.
But even if Marner avoided the scuttlebutt, he has an imagination, too.
He and Auston Matthews, who won this year’s Rocket Richard Trophy with 41 goals in 52 games, make a combined $22.5 million and have one goal between them in this series. This was after they were held to just two in a five-game loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the bubble last summer.
They know the eyes — and daggers — of a crazed fanbase are aimed straight at them. And these two superstars aren’t just fighting against their own playoff demons; they’re battling those of Leafs gone by, with the team entrenched in a 54-year Stanley Cup drought and staring down a 16th consecutive season of not playing games beyond the first round.
And no one — probably least of all them — thought they’d have to do it after shutting out the Canadiens 4-0 in Game 4.
The Leafs didn’t just have their counterparts pinned to the mat in establishing a 3-1 series lead. They had them pile-driven through the canvas. And now it’s consensus that if they let them up and lose this series — as the best, deepest and most talented team the organization has put forth this century — it’ll be akin to a deadly tumble down the Everest after several painful slides down steep mountains in recent playoffs.
There’s at least one Toronto columnist who wrote that Monday’s Game 7 is a final opportunity for Matthews and Marner to salvage their reputations, as if they could forever be known as failures if they can’t come through against the Canadiens.
Both players, who are both under the age of 25, will treat this as an opportunity they’ve always dreamt of having, but will they find the freedom to play loose with all of that hanging over their heads?
It’s hard to envision them getting looser if the shots keep going wide, off the post, or off Carey Price at the start of Game 7.
Does anyone think Montreal’s goaltender is going to clam up after what he’s shown since Game 1? After what he showed in overtime on Saturday, pushing aside 13 shots and several quality opportunities as if he were a lion calmly swiping gnats away in between yawns?
Didn’t think so.
“For me, remaining loose is a question of confidence,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme on Sunday. “When we talk about being loose, it’s not just about being relaxed; it’s about being confident.”
The Canadiens found confidence in asserting themselves to obtain 3-0 and 2-0 leads in Games 5 and 6, respectively, and they built on it becoming the first team in NHL history to win both elimination games in overtime after blowing those leads.
If you don’t think Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson are carrying confidence into Game 7, you either don’t realize or don’t appreciate how those four defencemen played for the Canadiens on Saturday.
They have only one point between them in this series, but you don’t see a single column being written about how the referendum on their careers is in the offing come Monday.
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No, the talk is about how they’ve smothered and smashed Matthews and Marner and put a lick on everyone else skating in a Leafs jersey. It’s about how “they’re the mean men being tough out there,” as Jesperi Kotkaniemi put it after scoring the overtime winner in Game 6.
Chiarot talked about the value of the brute force with which he and the Canadiens have met the Leafs. They’ve out-hit them 254-172, and it’s not just because they’ve been chasing the puck for long portions of each game — they have had multiple periods in this series where they’ve led in both shot attempts and hits by wide margins.
“That’s been a storyline in the playoffs forever,” said the six-foot-three, 225-pound Chiarot, “wearing down the opponent.”
But that’s not just a physical process.
It has a psychological effect, too. One that was so obviously a factor in Game 6, with several Leafs spending more energy attempting to slip checks than taking them to make plays.
Behind them, Jack Campbell has appeared unintimidated — and even brilliant at times.
But he’s 3-3 in his Stanley Cup Playoffs career and has never played in an elimination game. And he’ll be standing across from a goaltender who’s 2-1 and has a .944 save percentage in three career Game 7s. A goaltender who’s built his reputation as the best of his generation by virtually always standing on his head with his back against the wall.
Campbell might find a way to play loose and have fun. Same for Matthews, Marner and this team of talented Leafs players.
But they’ll have to likely do it without Jake Muzzin. He’s one of their two Cup winners, their best defenceman, and his presence in the lineup is very much in doubt after he left Saturday’s game halfway through with a lower-body injury.
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At least Zach Bogosian, who won with Tampa Bay a year ago, will play.
And then there’s Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza. They’re seasoned veterans, absolutely.
But their ability to calm the nerves in this situation is in doubt, considering they joined Toronto in the hopes they’d avoid having their names added to the list of the greatest players to have never won a Cup.
Tyler Toffoli has two rings, and Corey Perry, Eric Staal and Edmundson each have one, and they play for the Canadiens. They were brought in for this express purpose, with general manager Marc Bergevin saying it wasn’t by accident he went shopping for winners, and they’ve all shown already in this series that they know how to get loose when the pressure threatens to suffocate everyone in its path.
They’re four players on a Canadiens team that feels good about itself right now. A team that feels prepared to extend its season with one last win over the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena this year, with the Jets waiting for them at Bell MTS Place.
“We’re approaching the game like we did the last two,” said Ducharme. “We want to control what we can control. We’re confident. We’re going to Toronto to head to Winnipeg.”