Former Leafs on playing Game 7 in Boston: ‘The whole city is against you’

BOSTON — As the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins approach their fourth Game 7 at TD Garden since 2013, a simple truth from those previous meetings sums up what’s at stake here: It promises to be both a night everyone remembers and one the losing side will spend years trying to forget.

Toronto was on the wrong end of those previous three games, and several of the 40 Leafs players who played in them politely declined an invitation to share their memories in the lead-up to Saturday’s latest do-or-die showdown.

For those who did agree to talk, the scars clearly still linger.

“There’s parts I try to forget,” said James van Riemsdyk, a core member of the 2013 Leafs and current greybeard with the Bruins. “That still sucks for anyone who was on that team to this day.”

How the Leafs lost that first Game 7 set the tone for those that came after. They were a big underdog in the series and somehow found themselves leading 4-1 in the third period on May 13, 2013, only to see Boston storm back and claim a 5-4 overtime victory that featured two Bruins goals with the goaltender pulled for an extra attacker.

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The Bruins celebrate after Patrice Bergeron’s overtime goal in Game 7 in 2013. (Brian Babineau / NHLI via Getty Images)

Five years later, an overmatched Toronto team was steamrolled 7-4 by the Bruins on April 25, 2018, after entering the third period with a 4-3 lead. Nearly an exact year later, on April 23, 2019, the Leafs lost 5-1 in a Game 7 that was more tightly contested than the final score suggests, but that saw them fail to rebound from allowing two soft first-period goals.

In the case of those most recent Game 7 losses at TD Garden — which featured early-career Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly — the specter of 2013 hung over the dressing room even if the roster had shifted considerably, according to Andrew Brewer, an assistant coach on Mike Babcock’s staff at the time.

“It didn’t impact the players themselves, but it impacted the conversation around the team,” Brewer said. “It just adds doubt to the mind, and there’s conversations had that you wouldn’t normally have. All the coaches will say, ‘Hey, we don’t talk about that, these guys are professionals, blah blah blah.’ That’s great to say, but your kids are looking at social media, your wife is looking at social media, your buddies are texting you and asking if this is going to be the year.

“Unless you completely turn off your life, which you can’t really do, then it’s still there. That information is still there and that kind of history is still there. It lives on.”

Among the more compelling aspects of Saturday’s game will be that both sides are shouldering some heavy history.

The Bruins are trying to avoid becoming the first team in the history of North American professional sports to squander 3-1 series leads in consecutive years. They let Florida off the mat last spring and looked tight while missing on two opportunities to close out the Leafs this week even though Matthews was unavailable for those games due to injury.

Meanwhile, Toronto has added several more chapters of do-or-die heartbreak since the back-to-back losses in Boston, dropping a Game 5 play-in decider to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2020, a Game 7 to the Montreal Canadiens in 2021 and a Game 7 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2022.

Completing a comeback in this series after nearly being written off entirely a week ago while in a 3-1 hole would represent a breakthrough for this group. It’s a chance to shift the directional course of the franchise.

“Yeah, it’s special,” William Nylander said of Game 7. “I don’t know if we’ve won one yet, so we’re up to the test.”

History tells us it won’t be easy.

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Auston Matthews and William Nylander played in the Leafs’ last two Game 7 losses in Boston. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

The 2013 Leafs were overwhelmed by the noise at TD Garden as the Bruins ramped up their attack in pursuit of a Game 7 comeback. Nazem Kadri, who has since won a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2022, called it the loudest building he’s ever been in, adding: “Honestly, it felt like it was going to collapse.”

“I think we lost that last game because we over-thought the structure,” teammate Mikhail Grabovski said. “We got a little bit slower in that last game.”

The lesson from the 2018 and 2019 Leafs is to focus on not making any unforced errors that give the Bruins life. Those Game 7s swung on egregious defensive-zone giveaways and soft goals against. They got away from Toronto quickly.

It’s a testament to how challenging the atmosphere can be for a visitor at TD Garden, where the ice sheet rests on the third floor and is tailored to the needs of the Bruins, according to Brewer.

“It’s a little bit of an old-school building,” he said. “The story was always that the Bruins understand the ice, they know the ice, they don’t mind the bad ice, so they don’t put the work into making it any better. They’re a dump-and-chase, work-hard, win-along-the-walls or win-in-the-forecheck type of team, compared to trying to beat Toronto on clean entries and on skill.

“Again, hey, maybe these are just stories that we make up as teams — the whole world’s against you — but that’s kind of the feeling there. The whole city is against you. When you go into Boston you feel like everybody in Boston hates you.”

There is certainly no love lost here for the Leafs, the team Bruins captain Brad Marchand considers Boston’s biggest rival after all the Game 7 history.

As for what Toronto needs to do to finally win one, Brewer believes they’ve found a recipe for success with the way they tightened up defensively during Game 5 and Game 6 wins, in which the Bruins registered three shots total in the first periods. He thinks it will be key for them to manage the game early and keep building on the good things they’ve done to push the series to the limit.

“They’ve got to try to hold back the onslaught and keep the momentum,” Brewer said. “They’ve got it. They’ve played really well the last two games. Don’t give their fans anything to cheer about. Don’t give Boston anything to get going because once they get going it’s impossible to stop that boulder.”

As the Leafs players of the past will tell you — or won’t — Game 7 will leave a mark, too.

(Top photo of the Maple Leafs after losing Game 7 in Boston on April 23, 2019: Fred Kfoury III / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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