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LeBrun: Brendan Gallagher’s thoughts on the Maple Leafs-Lightning Game 7

TORONTO — A year after his opening goal in Game 7 helped crush Toronto’s spirit, Brendan Gallagher feels he’s seeing a different Maple Leafs team.

“I can only speak from afar, I’ve been watching the series — they do look different,” the veteran Canadiens winger said Friday. “We’ll see how they handle it.’’

Indeed, here we go again. Game 7. The Maple Leafs, as an organization, trying to end an 18-year playoff series drought, and more importantly, this current core led by Auston Matthews trying to win for the first time after five consecutive playoff series losses dating back to 2017.

But I agree with Gallagher, this Leafs team feels different.

It’s a battle-tested group that seems to be better equipped than a year ago to handle what comes Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena. The theatre of it all is unreal: The playoff savvy Lightning trying to keep their Stanley Cup three-peat dreams alive; the Leafs once and for all trying to shed their first-round playoff demons.

A year ago, those playoff ghosts seemed too much to handle for the Leafs.

Last May 31, when Gallagher opened the scoring 3:02 into the second period, the Habs never looked back en route to a 3-0 lead and ultimately a 3-1 Game 7 win. His goal sucked the life out of a Maple Leafs team feeling the pressure of a series slipping away after being up 3-1.

The Habs could feel that.

“It definitely deflated them early,” Gallagher said of his Game 7 goal.

It’s a seventh game Saturday night brought on by a Game 6 overtime loss, just like a year ago.

“We kind of felt last year, when we won that Game 6 in overtime, we could feel them deflated,” Gallagher said.

Despite erasing a pair of two-goal deficits this week against the Lightning, it goes without saying that in Game 7 the opening goal could be meaningful given what’s at stake.

“It’s hard in those elimination games when you get down,” Gallagher said. “Because you’re trying not to tell yourself but basically you’re telling yourself, ‘You don’t win this game, you’re done.’ You try to force it a little bit. The emotions of the game, they do get to you.

“That’s where experience matters in these big games and (the Leafs) do have a lot of it. They’ve competed this whole series.’’

As Gallagher repeated a few times in our conversation, he sees what many of us do, that the Leafs this time around look like a different team.

“There’s definitely a lot of pressure on these players. But experience matters in Game 7, they’re a group that’s been through a lot,” Gallagher said. “You take a lot from bad experiences as well.”

I am reminded of something veteran Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said this past Monday in his media availability, a day after the team got crushed in Game 4 by the Lightning.

I asked him about how the core group could use all the heart-breaking playoff experiences of the past five years as a positive in this series. The idea that it has hardened them.

“I think as a group, we feel like we have learned a lot in our past experiences,” Rielly said. “I think that’s natural when you go through something, you reflect and look back on what you wish you did differently and moving forward, you to try to execute those things. I certainly feel like that is the case with our group. We’ve learned a lot.

“It’s on us to produce some results and prove that we’ve grown, we’ve matured, we’ve learned. I tend to believe that is the case.”

It’s also how Rielly said it. The body language was confident. This wasn’t meant to be a sound bite. It was one of Toronto’s leaders truly believing the playoff scars have made this group more battle-tested than ever before.

There’s also this. Despite the obvious importance of getting off to a good start in Game 7, it should be noted that the Leafs rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win Game 5, 4-3 Tuesday night. They rallied again from a 2-0 hole Thursday night in Tampa before losing 4-3 in overtime. In each case, they didn’t get rattled. And they were led by their top players.

How much can the Leafs take from that as far as being ready for anything thrown at them in Game 7?

“I think a lot,’’ Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said Friday. “We talked about it, our performance in Game 5, to find our way back and to win that game I think was a huge moment for our team. And I think that moment helped us in Game 6. I think the two combined will help us in Game 7.

“I think it just speaks to the fact that our team and this season is unique and different. It’s the belief that we have in our group. You look at the fact that it’s our top players who are executing at critical times and helping us find our way back. The team is playing well as a group. All those things combined give us great confidence moving into the final game here.’’

I think we’ll see the best of the Leafs on Saturday night. Whether that’s enough to finish off the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions? I can’t answer that.

It would also give me pause if I were the Leafs that we’ve yet to see that true Andrei Vasilevskiy-esque game where he goes all Carey Price-like on the Leafs. That shutdown game hasn’t happened yet. The Leafs have pumped three or more goals past him in six straight games.

Is there a Vasy moment coming here?

“Well, you would think so, because he’s proven it time and time again,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Friday. “It’s not always the amount of saves you make, it’s when you make them. We needed some saves in overtime and who was the guy there to make them but Vasy.

“You’re probably right, he’s probably let in more than he would have liked and we would have liked, but a lot of that is on the guys in front of him and us. But he’s sure nice to have back there. And you never know when he’s just going to say, ‘OK,  I’ve had enough.’ That’s it, nothing is getting by him.’’

Are the Lightning tired though? There’s a reason a team hasn’t won three consecutive Stanley Cups since the 1980s Islanders. It’s incredibly taxing.

“I’ve watched these guys go through every adversity you possibly can and they’ve found a way to emerge, and this is just another one in front of us,’’ Cooper said of his team’s three-year run. “Has it been taxing? It has. And I wouldn’t even say physically but probably mentally. Because to get yourself up every single day to have to fight through some things and you’re just like, ‘You know what, we’ve done it. It’s ok if we don’t.’

“But these guys won’t accept that. It’s been pretty impressive. And so, it’s been a blast these three years. Like I told the guys, our story is not finished being written. We’ve got a lot left in us, we feel.”

Which makes it all the more compelling as far as what the Leafs would be accomplishing if they win Saturday night. Knocking out the Lightning would be a formidable achievement.

Win or lose, I truly believe this Leafs core will rise to the challenge Saturday night as they have since the start of the second period in Game 5.

Whether or not that’s enough to ultimately change the narrative about their group, well that will need a ‘W’ attached to it.

That’s the harsh reality. But one at the very least this Leafs team really for the first time seems comfortable confronting.

(Photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)

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