Gretzky: These Maple Leafs are legit

May, 11, 2013
5/11/13
3:15
PM ET
TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs are playing with house money.

There’s no harder team to finish off than a club that wasn’t picked by anyone to win a series. It has nothing to lose.

In failing to finish the Leafs off in Game 5 on Friday night, the Boston Bruins also further fueled the growing belief that is growing in the Toronto dressing room.

The win while facing elimination Friday night made a statement to many, including The Great One.

"They’re up against a really good opponent, a team that’s just two years removed from winning the Cup, but any time you can win a Game 5 in that situation against a team of that caliber, obviously you’ve got character and it builds even more character," Wayne Gretzky told ESPN.com over the phone Saturday. "They’re legit. They’re playing on high emotion right now."

Gretzky said that belief begins with Leafs coach Randy Carlyle and what he’s selling to his young team.

"It’s about believing in your system. The system starts with the head coach," Gretzky said. "He’s got tremendous credibility after winning a Stanley Cup himself [2007 in Anaheim]. It’s not a question of players saying, 'Are we sure he knows what he’s doing?' Because they’re absolutely positive he knows what he’s doing. The credibility starts right there with the coach."

There’s certainly no denying the job Carlyle and his staff have done this season in Toronto. They’ve taken a young club and given it structure. When the team has struggled, it has reverted back to that base, which in my opinion has helped limit prolonged slumps.

But to pull that off, the players have to buy what the coach is selling.

"If you’re not honest and hardworking and forthright and demanding in some ways, how can we expect our players to follow the lead?" Carlyle said Saturday. "If you’re not going to be consistent with it, why should they be consistent with it. They’re professionals, they want to win. ... So we have to convince them that the way we’re doing things, and the way our coaching staff and our management perceives it, is the right way to win."

Toronto’s two victories in Boston in the series will have an impact on this group far beyond the here and now.

After getting destroyed in Game 1, plus having two off days to get asked about it, the Leafs headed into Game 2 with nobody outside their dressing room walls believing they had any clue as to how to compete with the Bruins in a playoff series.

They won.

Coming off a heart-breaking, 4-3 overtime loss in Game 4, the universal sense was that the Leafs had taken their best swing, and, down 3-1, that they would be heading to Boston to have their season end in Game 5.

They won.

Just 11 days after not knowing anything about playoff hockey, the young Maple Leafs have grown in their understanding.

"Being able to go into Boston and getting those big wins has been a huge confidence booster," said young forward Nazem Kadri. "Our backs were against the wall in those games. We needed to win them, and we stepped up and came through. Boston’s been around the block and back, so I’m assuming they’ll be coming out a lot harder tomorrow night and ready to work. We can’t give them an opportunity to gain that confidence back on us."

A big reason for the win Friday night was goalie James Reimer, who bounced back from a so-so performance in Game 4 with a 43-save performance in Game 5.

Overall, Reimer has been outplayed by Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask. But Reimer delivered a gem Friday night, continuing what has been a statement season for a guy most believed was the weakest link on this team before the season.

"There was so much talk throughout the hockey world wondering if their goaltending was strong enough to get through the season and get into the playoffs," Gretzky said. "I think their goaltender has answered that question extremely well. It’s a hard city for anyone to play in, but it’s really tough for a goaltender. I think Reimer has been tremendous. When the players have a strong belief in their goaltender, that goes a long way. I know, as good as we were in 1993 [with the Kings], we really believed in Kelly Hrudey. He was going to make the big save whether it was 2-2 or 4-4; he wasn’t going to let the next goal in. I feel like there’s a real sense in that locker room now in Toronto."

Win or lose, Reimer is unflappable. He probably should have had David Krejci's shot in overtime Wednesday night on the 2-on-1 break, and he knows that. So his response Friday night tells you about his character.

"It feels good to play well," Reimer said Saturday. "It was tough to lose Game 4, but you can’t be too low. And after a game like last night, you can’t be too high. Things happen. I had a couple of lucky breaks yesterday and not so much the game before that. All you can really do is play as well as you can and see where it goes from there."

Odds are, the veteran Bruins will prevail. They’re a composed team. They’ve been here before. Coach Claude Julien will have these guys ready Sunday night.

But the shot at an upset is there, nonetheless.

"The first round of the playoffs, historically, has been the wildest in a lot of ways," Carlyle said. "A lot of energy, a lot of teams vying for respect, vying for a template with their young group, some veteran teams take a bit more time to get their team game in order, there’s more opportunity for upsets. ...

"We’re in a situation where we’re trying to create an identity for our organization and for our hockey club."

That identity has been enriched in the past 11 days.

"You know, they’re still young and they’re still learning," Gretzky said. "This is how you learn, by getting a chance to play in big games like this. Game 5 in Boston was probably one of the biggest games those kids have played in for a long time. From that point of view, it’s just going to help their maturity and their growth a lot quicker. That game has done a lot, I’m sure, to give that team confidence and belief they’re good enough to win Game 6 and maybe good enough to win Game 7. Problem is, they’re facing a really strong opponent with a tremendous coach themselves. That’s where it gets difficult. But it’s been really good hockey."

A win Sunday night by the Leafs and both teams would have a quick turnaround with Game 7 in Boston on Monday night.

It’s not ideal. But no one in Toronto would complain.

"That would be great, wouldn’t it?" Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur said, smiling. "That’s the plan."

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