The Young Leafs Feel no Pressure and Nothing to Lose? Says Who!

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Youth is not defined chronologically as a stage that can be tied to specific age ranges nor can its end point be linked to specific activities; like a 60-year old dating a 20-something; it’s just a number. I wish!

The youthful Maple Leafs have embarked on the exciting challenge to hoist the coveted Holy Grail; The Stanley Cup. The entertaining team enjoyed a thrilling ride this past season and now after splitting the first two playoff games against the powerful Washington Capitals, return home to a series that’s a best of five. Now what?

Pressure is defined as the force applied perpendicular to the surface of an object per unit area over which that force is distributed; similar to an Auston Matthews snap shot maybe? I noticed while familiarizing myself with the definition of pressure, that age wasn’t a factor or even mentioned.

The point I’m trying to make is all this nonsense about the Leafs playing with nothing to lose and should just enjoy the moment. Does anyone really believe that the players would actually think like that? The difference between them and the average fan is they’ve been the star player, go to guy, player to be stopped, expected to deliver, most popular and so on at every level of competition since childhood. What isn’t pressure filled about that?

Playoffs are an exciting time for all who watch or participate in the sport at any level.

The 60+ men’s league in Markham I play, games look in reverse at times, but come playoffs, you’d think millions of dollars was up for grabs instead of a $5 “Fruit of the Loom” XL- T-shirt.

The adjustment an NHL player has to make entering the playoffs besides competing is the mental toughness to block out the white noise. The added media coverage, fans, family, friends, the guy you haven’t spoken to since grade four looking for seats, are a few examples of distractions that can be overwhelming, no matter the age. It’s thought once the puck’s dropped, it’s just another hockey game or is it?

The game can be equally challenging for newcomers to the playoffs because the intensity level magnifies the further your team advances. The sense of urgency, fluke goals, bad bounces, clutching, grabbing, late hits, shoves after the whistle, guys finishing their checks, are ingrained in playoff hockey and after a few shifts, the elite players will adjust very quickly.

Discipline and confidence define the character of champions who adjust the quickest. The Leafs after some undisciplined penalties seemed to realize the error of their ways as game two progressed, with the confidence level increasing as well. Matthews and Nylander let their talents carry them as the game went on and while Auston didn’t have a lot of room because he was so closely watched, it opened up the ice for the likes of Hyman, Reilly and Gardiner; they can’t cover them all!

There aren’t any bad teams in the playoffs. NHL parity is the tightest in sports with the separation between first and twelfth a meager half dozen wins or so. Ask pre-season Cup favourite Tampa Bay Lightning how they feel? The Leafs gave up 15 OTL points this year (worst in league) and imagine if they had won half of those or protected some blown early season leads? They would have challenged for top spot and before you say it, yes I gave all the other teams half wins for OTL losses; the math still had the Leafs higher.

The window to win in any sport is narrow; the NHL is becoming a very young league and will only get more difficult to qualify never mind to win.

The 1980 Edmonton Oilers who squeaked into the playoffs did upset the mighty Montreal Canadiens who finished as the 3rd seed with 103 points vs the Oilers who had 74. That was an upset no question but was also the coming out year for a certain number 99. Just saying.

Make no mistake, upsets are the fun part of sports, otherwise what would be the point of watching if things always went according to rule? But that’s what whets our appetite as fans. The actual participants have a different mindset than ours.

Players are wired to win and there isn’t a man in the league worth his weight in pucks that doesn’t think once the post season begins his team has a chance to advance.

And as far as the pressure they may be feeling? Legendary golfer Lee Trevino was once asked after he was the first pro golfer to win the Canadian Open and CPGA in the same year if he felt any pressure to close out the Open to complete the feat,

“Pressure?” said Trevino. “That’s not pressure, pressure is playing a $50 Nassau with $5 in your pocket.”