The Toronto Maple Leafs’ team that general manager Kyle Dubas constructed and that Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe has coached to Game 7 against the reigning Tampa Bay Lightning is not the same old Maple Leafs’ team that has lost in the first round over the past four seasons. 

The team is better, deeper, stronger, and more battle-hardened. Their leaders are leading and their best players are playing like their best players. They might not win tonight against the Lightning, but it isn’t because they have fatal flaws they are trying to cover up or hide. This is a good team. 

Morgan Rielly and Justin Holl make up part of a strong Toronto Maple Leafs defense

But then so is the two-time Stanley Cup-winning Lightning. Should the Maple Leafs get past this round – as I believe they will – they might have faced their most difficult opponent already. It was just bad luck – or good luck, depending on how you look at it – that the Maple Leafs drew the Lighting in round one.

Related: 3 Takeaways from Maple Leafs 4-3 Game 6 Overtime Loss to the Lightning

Difference One: The Maple Leafs Had a Far Better Regular Season

During the regular season, the Maple Leafs set records with 54 wins and with 115 points. Center Auston Matthews was the Rocket Richard Trophy winner by scoring 60 goals. He also scored 106 points on the season. Michael Bunting is a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.  

Difference Two: The Maple Leafs Are Hanging in There with the Champs

During the postseason, the Maple Leafs have played it even with the Stanley Cup champions. The games have gone back and forth, but have ended up almost even in terms of goals – the Maple Leafs have scored 23 to 21 for the Lightning, shots on the net (the Lightning lead 190-185), and even shots taken (the Lightning lead 352-345). 

Auston Matthews and William Nylander have scored well this postseason.

Difference Three: The Team’s Best Players ARE Their Best Players

Unlike last postseason, when the Maple Leafs’ stars failed to shine brightly, this season the team’s best players have stepped up. Entering tonight’s Game 7, the Core Four of Auston Matthews (with eight points), William Nylander (with seven points), Mitch Marner (with seven points), and John Tavares (with six points) are all point-a-game players. 

Difference Four: The Maple Leafs Know They Can Come Back on the Lighting

Already, in two games, the Maple Leafs fell behind by two goals and then came back – once in Game 5 to win in regulation and once in Game 6 to lose in overtime. However, the team knows if it falls behind there’s no reason to panic. 

John Tavares and Auston Matthews both scored in Game 6 (upper deck Maple Leafs)

Difference Five: Maple Leafs Head Coach Sheldon Keefe Is Gaining Experience

There have been some critiques about Sheldon Keefe’s coaching this year; however, those criticisms seem to be carried over to past postseasons. He’s making better decisions this season. He’s gaining experience. Better, his players are playing for him.

Related: Three Takeaways from Maple Leafs’ 4-3 Win Over the Lightning

Keefe Believes This Team Is Different

Keefe notes himself that this group is different this season than last season. He was quoted as noting that “our team and this season is unique and different.” 

Coach Keefe highlighted some of the differences and how they give the team confidence: “It’s the belief we have within our group. You look at the fact that it’s our top players here executing at critical times and helping us find our way back. The team’s playing well as a group. All those things combined give us great confidence going into the final game here.”

The team might not win tonight; however, as Keefe noted the challenge from the opponent isn’t easy but “we certainly aren’t uncomfortable as we go into this game. We’re ready for it.”

Related: Maple Leafs’ Quick Hits: Congrats to Calder Candidate Michael Bunting

The post This Is Not the Same Old Maple Leafs: Five Differences appeared first on NHL Trade Talk.

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