TORONTO — Confidence can work a bit like a puzzle. In the process of building it, often times it's left incomplete and sits unintended on a coffee table in a basement somewhere. You'll get around to it, maybe. Or most likely you won't. Other times, those pieces come together without much effort, and for the end product to be displayed just like that.
When it comes to confidence, not puzzles, it seems like the Toronto Maple Leafs left it on the table — or at least dragged its feet in the process of acquiring and cultivating it.
Trips to Boston in the early days that they were, perhaps in hindsight, unfit for at the time, seemed to set them back in this process, had them choose not to see the original task or this key developmental stage through. Those moments of disappointment, embarrassment and sheer hockey trauma, losing devastatingly in back-to-back Game 7s, seemed to affect them deeply and created some nasty scar tissue.
In subsequent series versus lesser competition in the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens, they folded at the first sight of trouble.
It all felt connected.
Along the way this season, however, it seems the Leafs did quietly tackle the issue of confidence. While they started off appearing as shaken as ever when beginning the regular season on a disastrous note, the Leafs were able to rebound in a manner that surprised most who followed the team. They went on to set franchise records with the most dominant tandem in the history of the team — Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — leading the line for the deepest and most talented version of the Leafs that a large segment of the fanbase has ever seen.
Still, it was worth wondering for the last few months down the stretch and in preparation for the postseason how they would respond after all the trivial stuff (115 points for the team and 60 goals for Matthews, among others things) was sorted out, especially with the monumental assignment of a first-round matchup versus the Tampa Bay Lightning looming.
How was it that a team that has shown to be so fragile in the most important moments was to be expected to stand up, dig in, and suddenly show resolve versus the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, and a team that has designed a dynasty on resiliency, building and rebuilding its confidence again multiple times over?
Yet, and again to the surprise of many, the Leafs did prove they were different versus the Lightning. They said as much, as often as they could. Head coach Sheldon Keefe stopped everyone in their tracks at one point, saying: "this is as confident as I've been in this team."
But more important than that, the Leafs illustrated it through their actions, showing the fight and spirit and determination that has been missing while matching the Lightning in a series that over any length of time would have been decided by only the narrowest of margins.
It's left the Leafs to sort through a new collection of emotions, of course, after losing to the Lightning in a battle, in the end, decided by one goal Saturday night in Game 7.
That's because unlike season's past, the Leafs were really ready this time. And yet the outcome was the same. The reactions weren't ones of frustration or regret; the Leafs appeared nearly broken by the result.
One by one entering the media room Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena, several with the brim of their hats covering eyes still red from emotion, those who spoke provided every indication the Leafs believed, deep down, that it was their time, this time.
It didn't matter that the opponent had been, and now continues to be, an unstoppable force in postseason hockey. They had confidence that the result was going to be different.
"I hope they realize the hard the work we put in, the time and the effort," Matthews said, speaking almost apologetically to the fanbase, without prompt, in an honest moment. "We're just disappointed."
Before it was in crushing language and tacit post-game response, it was in the Leafs' performance that suggested it was different.
Matthews and Marner were sensational in the series, combining for six goals, 17 points and 50 shots, after disappearing in last summer's loss to the Montreal Canadiens. Marner, who has received a disproportionate share of criticism for past failures, was arguably the best player on the ice in Game 7, refusing to give up on the season.
Jack Campbell fought like hell, too, in the Leafs' net. He allowed one fewer goal and finished with the exact same overall save percentage of his counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy, answering questions about whether or not the moments could become too big.
William Nylander and John Tavares showed up when it mattered. Jake Muzzin returned to form. Mark Giordano stabilized the bottom pairing and the other in-season additions did their jobs. David Kampf ate up loads of tough defensive minutes. The fourth line began to outperform Tampa Bay's.
On balance, Toronto was taking more and more ownership of the series as it plunged further into its depths.
It's possible that as they grew it left confidence to wane on the opposite side.
While Keefe was making strong assertions about the belief in his team ahead of Game 7, Tampa's coach, Jon Cooper, was talking openly about the fear of failure heading in the contest. While always willing to speak candidly, Cooper didn't shy away from the possibility of losing — perhaps even as a protective measure. He wouldn't be the first coach to plant that seed.
"That was as evenly matched a series as you will see," Cooper said, with a literal sigh of relief after the Lightning gutted out the Game 7 win, adding: "They gave us everything we could handle."
Flattery, and even lip service, is not uncommon after a long and gruelling postseason series, of course, and respect is compulsory, but Steven Stamkos took those things to the next level with his remarks.
"That's one of the toughest series we have probably played," Tampa Bay's captain said.
"They have everything. It's just — we have everything, too."
Words from neither Stamkos, Cooper, or any member of the Lightning shouldn't factor too deeply, much less inform decisions in Toronto as the Maple Leafs and management prepare to retool again.
But as the Leafs unpack the latest and the worst of the disappointments, and begin to make decisions over the next few days, weeks and months, the franchise shouldn't lose sight of the immediate context, and how different this all could have played out.
Keefe should feel as confident as he's ever been in the team after installing the systems and belief into such a talented roster.
Management should still have it after piecing together another vastly improved supporting cast.
The core should feel it after losing out to the best team in the history of the salary cap era by the slimmest of margins.
Though change might be the easiest thing, to lose confidence now, having only just established it, would be the worst thing the Leafs could do.
The only path forward for this team is one last stand.
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