TORONTO — The other day the Toronto Maple Leafs were sitting in the dressing room when the conversation turned to the upcoming playoff series against the Boston Bruins and how this young and emerging team needs to take advantage of an opportunity that might not come around as often as everyone thinks it might.
To emphasize the point, Patrick Marleau provided his own experience. In the last 19 years in the league, he’s made the playoffs 17 times. And yet, he’s only played in 177 post-season games. Do the math.
Someone asked how many times he’s lost in the first round? Seven.
How about the second round? Six.
Did he ever reach the Stanley Cup final? Yes, once.
“I think the underlying message there is you don’t get these opportunities very much,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly, shaking his head. “You look at a guy who’s had an incredible career, who’s scored hundreds of goals and played over 1,500 games and he’s only been to the final once. So that kind of message hits home for guys.
“There’s a realistic possibility that this is a darn good team and opportunities like this don’t just come around, so let’s do everything we can to take advantage of it.”
As someone who turns 39 later this year, Marleau knows that better than anyone. Father time is ticking. After spending nearly two decades in San Jose, where the Sharks were a consistently great regular-season team that consistently choked in the playoffs, he decided to change things up last summer by signing a three-year contact with the Leafs.
This is his chance to end his storied career with the championship that has eluded him. And while he technically has three cracks at getting it done, he’s stressing the importance of making this year count.
“These guys are hungry for it. That’s important,” Marleau said. “I think every team has to believe in themselves in order to go far. I think our group feel confident in ourselves. You have play the right way and you have to do it longer and harder than the other team.”
Unlike the Sharks, who carried the baggage of past disappointments into every successive playoff series, the Leafs enter this year’s post-season with basically a clean slate. Only a handful of players were around for the three-goal blown lead in Game 7 against the Bruins in 2013. And though the team lost in the first round in last year’s playoffs, the players see taking the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals to seven games as a positive experience on which to build.
Of course, perceptions can change in a hurry if the team bows out in the first round again. Just ask Marleau.
During a 10-year span, the Sharks won their division six times. Each year, they were considered Stanley Cup favourites. Each year, they found new ways to disappoint. In 2008-09, San Jose finished with the best record in the NHL and was upset in the first-round by Anaheim. In 2013-14, the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead to the Kings, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.
“He’s such a great hockey player, such a great mentor, that you’d expect him, in fairness, to get a Cup by now,” rookie defenceman Travis Dermott said. “But nothing’s promised. We’re on a winning team that can go far and if you take if granted, who knows the next year you could the last place team in the league. Anything can happen.”
It was not until two years ago when San Jose finally put it all together and reached the final, losing 4-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It’s an accomplishment to get there,” Marleau said. “But you want to win it all obviously. We fell short a few times after getting to the conference final, but to finally get there it was good to give yourself that one extra chance to finally win.”
That was part of the reason why he came to Toronto. He’s not here to be a mentor. He came here to get a Stanley Cup.
“You could hear it in his voice, the motivation that he has to win,” Rielly said. “It’s really cool.”
This team, with a young core that includes Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander at forward, as well as Rielly leading the defence, has the potential to do something special. By finishing with the third-most points in the Eastern conference, they showed that they can play against anyone in the regular season. Now they have to do it when it counts.
“It’s nice feeling good about yourself, but it’s a brand new season so you have to continue it,” said Marleau, who equalled the 27 goals he scored last year with San Jose, while playing on a second line with Marner and Nazem Kadri.
“It just keeps ramping up.”
Pressure on Nash to produce
Marleau is not the only veteran in the Leafs-Bruins series that has something to prove in this year’s playoffs.
Boston’s Rick Nash, who was acquired for a first-round pick from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, has played in 1,060 regular-season games without a Stanley Cup. The closest he got was in 2013-14, when the Rangers lost 4-2 in the final to the Los Angeles Kings.
The 35-year-old has missed the last 12 games with a concussion, but is expected to be ready for Game 1.
“Obviously it will take a game or so the get back up to speed, but everything is positive,” Nash told reporters in Boston following the team’s practice on Tuesday. “Everyone figured I could use a few more practices more than just one pregame skate.”
With Nash coming back, Boston is expected to sit out rookie Ryan Donato, who scored five goals and nine points in 12 games. In other words, there’s even more pressure for Nash, who has three goals and three assists in 11 games with the Bruins, to perform in these playoffs.
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