Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been playing beyond his years against the Boston Bruins. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
As the Toronto Maple Leafs go into their first Game 7 experience in nine years Monday night, they do so with the comfort that one of their top defenseman is a seasoned NHL veteran and been through this kind of thing many times before.
His name is Jake Gardiner. Ignore the career summary on this one because it lies. In Gardiner’s mind, he really believes he’s that kind of player and, what’s more important, he’s playing like it. When Gardiner was an NHL rookie last season, his teammates took to nicknaming him “Silver Stick,” because he carried himself on and off the ice as though he had already played 1,000 games in the NHL. On the ice, his teammates loved that. Off the ice, maybe not so much.
The 22-year-old Gardiner, who failed to gain the trust of his own coach through much of the regular season, has been a force in the first round of the playoffs. After being a healthy scratch for the final four regular season games and the first one of this series – a Maple Leaf debacle, you’ll recall – Gardiner has played 20-plus minutes in each of the past four games. And he has been the Leafs' most dynamically offensive defenseman, pairing with Cody Franson to form a reliable second pairing that has been getting the job done at both ends of the ice.
Gardiner did not show up on the scoresheet for the Maple Leafs' 2-1 win in Game 6, but he was something to behold every time he touched the puck, which was often. His skating ability alone is enough to make him elite, but when you throw in that hockey sense and skill level, you have a player who has the chance to be special. (Just wondering: does anyone else think about how good the Anaheim Ducks' future would look on the blueline if they hadn’t traded Gardiner and hadn’t lost Justin Schultz to unrestricted free agency?)
“Our team has been playing well and I’ve been playing well, too,” Gardiner said, displaying that classic sense of self-confidence. “If guys are playing well, the coaching staff is going to play them more. It’s been great playing with Cody Franson, who has been a lot of help to me.”
So, in a hockey market where every single move is open to debate, we throw out the following question: Did the Maple Leafs handle Jake Gardiner properly or not? It’s an interesting query, which could also apply to Nazem Kadri, who played his best game of the series in Game 6. On the one hand, you could argue both were prepared to play in the NHL far before the Maple Leafs put them in the lineup - Kadri last season and Gardiner this season after making the all-rookie team in 2011-12. On the other, there’s merit to the suggestion both are contributing at the NHL level because of, not in spite of, the fact that they were allowed to develop at a slower pace at the pro level.
Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves on that one.
As the teams enter Game 7, it’s uncanny that Gardiner and the Maple Leafs have looked like the more veteran team the past couple of games. After being overwhelmed in Game 1, the Leafs have done a remarkable job of adjusting to the playoffs. The Bruins, meanwhile, have looked tentative and tepid. They have refused to use their physical advantage in all three zones and are passing the puck far too much, despite the fact they’ve outshot the Leafs in four of the six games.
That puts the pressure squarely on the more experienced Bruins in Game 7. And the Leafs unknowingly gained an advantage after the game when the Bruins were forced to stay in Toronto Sunday night because of a mechanical problem on their charter plane, while the Leafs jetted off for Boston right after the game.
“We are the team that that should prevail in everybody’s eyes, but they’ve played well and we haven’t played well enough,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “It’s as simple as that and that’s why it’s a 3-3 series right now.”
It’s almost a pick ‘em proposition in both Game 7s Monday night, but one thing is certain: neither the Bruins nor the Washington Capitals envisioned things getting to this at the beginning of their series. Both teams have home ice advantage, which should help them both. The Capitals have yet to lose on home ice in these playoffs and if the Leafs are going to beat the Bruins, they will have had to win on the TD Garden ice in Boston three times in one playoff series. A tall order indeed.
But the Leafs, who are playing with house money at the moment, don’t appear intimidated. Jake Gardiner certainly isn’t. Look for him to be a force again because players like him want and crave the opportunity to be difference makers for their teams. Gardiner is again in coach Randy Carlyle’s good books and is playing with the confidence of a player who has the trust of his coach.
“I don’t want to just go through the motions,” Gardiner said. “I want to impact the game in a positive way and try to do everything I can to help the team win.”
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.