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You don’t have to tell John Tavares he has one goal against the Boston Bruins — and that it was scored into an empty net.
He knows that.
He knows he led the Maple Leafs in scoring with the most goals he’s ever managed in his career. He knows this is why he came to Toronto, for moments and games such as these, to compete in a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs against another great team. To be front-and-centre and significant.
He knows that the matchup with Patrice Bergeron is one Hall of Fame centre against the other, although Tavares is not so presumptuous to declare himself that.
And he knows, more than any of us can, that he needs to be better in Game 7 against the Bruins — the Leafs’ annual journey it seems — and he needs to be part of the growing history of this turning franchise.
You don’t have to tell Mitch Marner he has no even-strength assists against the Bruins. That number, by itself, seems almost inexplicable. He knows he’s the Leafs’ leading scorer and playmaker. He knows he’s the quarterback that can see what others cannot. He has that swagger, that inner confidence, the stuff you can’t teach. He knows that he scored 94 points this season — a fabulous career high — and that didn’t come easily or accidentally.
But this is the time for the stars to be the stars. There seems an odd pendulum at times with this Maple Leafs team. When Marner is going great, Auston Matthews isn’t necessarily scoring. And when Matthews is scoring — and dominating — as he has in the second half of this series, Marner has gone unusually quiet.
Part of it is the matchup of the series: Marner, Tavares and Zach Hyman playing head-to-head against Bergeron, Brad Marchand and either Danton Heinen or David Pastrnak.
This is how tight and varying this series has been. Tavares has one goal. Bergeron has no goals at even strength. Marner has no goals at even strength. Marchand has four goals in the series, one into an empty net, one on the power play. Four of his five assists have come on the power play.
And Pastrnak, who obliterated the Leafs a year ago, has one goal at even strength. That’s all. Same as Hyman.
And now Leafs fans look to Tavares, the great free-agent signing, to make a difference, and look to Marner to be the little man carrying the big team, while the same is remarkably true about the Bruins.
There is that little to choose from between these two teams as Game 7 approaches on Tuesday night. The Boston defence, with an ancient Zdeno Chara, the great puck-movers Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy, and the emerging and impressive Brandon Carlo, is deeper and stronger than the Leafs’ backline. But the Leafs’ depth and strength up front — even with Nazem Kadri missing in action — provides a line with Matthews, a line with Tavares and Marner, a line that should be better than it is with ubiquitous William Nylander. They have more options to score.
And as well as Freddie Andersen has played in goal, Tuukka Rask has matched him. And as well as Bruce Cassidy has coached, Mike Babcock has been his equal on most nights through the ebb and flow of altering decisions through six playoff games.
There are all kinds of ways of evaluating the Maple Leafs through six games but, really, all that matters now is this best-of-one. It’s winner-take-all. One game defining a season, really.
The Leafs have to find a way to get through without Kadri. The Leafs have to find a way to get through while getting little from Patrick Marleau. The Leafs have to find a way to get through with whatever injuries they currently have, and it’s pretty clear Hyman is playing on fumes, and probably others are as well.
This is Game 7. The game of our dreams as a kid. Nobody on the driveway in the middle of winter ever talks about scoring the winning goal in Game 5. It’s always Game 7.
And this is Game 7 for the second year in a row in Boston, but the way each team got here was completely different from a year ago.
The Leafs chased the series last year and lost in the third period of the final game. This year, it’s the Bruins who have been the chasers. No team has won two games in a row in this series. A year ago, both teams won two in a row.
Tavares made the decision to come to Toronto not for the money — he would have got that anywhere.
He came because they assured him he could play with Marner. He came because he looked at the roster and thought this would be a contender, today and tomorrow.
But you can’t really contend for anything until you win a playoff round.
No one has to tell Tavares what Tuesday night is all about. These are the games hockey lifers live for. These are the moments that define careers.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019