Curtis McElhinney saw the younger versions of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in two playoff series and left town thinking the sky was the limit for that franchise. McElhinney was also the backup in Tampa Bay for the back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in ’20 and ’21.
So, as this wild first-round series between the Maple Leafs and Lightning heads into Game 5 tied 2-2, the former NHL netminder has the unique perspective of having played on either side of this matchup and perhaps has a feel for what’s being felt and said at a rather critical juncture.
“It’s been a weird series,” McElhinney told The Athletic on Monday from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where he settled down with his wife and kids after announcing his NHL retirement last October. The 13-year NHL netminder was a backup in Toronto in 2016-17 and 2017-18, where the Leafs lost to Washington and Boston, respectively, in the first round. But at the time, it was also expected for a young, growing Leafs team.
Still, McElhinney got a feel for a passionate hockey market while here in Toronto. The white noise is real around this Leafs franchise. The players feel it. Especially in a moment like this.
“It’s tough,” McElhinney said. “My time there was pretty positive outside of the first-round losses. But the expectation was like ‘OK great we’re in the playoffs.’ That was Step 1. If we got past that in the years I was there, it would have just been a bonus.
“But now the expectations are greater. It is tricky to deal with. It’s not like you can just block it out in a city like that. It’s there all the time…I think those players, you can thrive off it, but it can also crush you, too.”
As McElhinney added, he doesn’t know the Leafs dressing room as well now because of all the changes since he left in 2018, but some of the same core guys are still there. This is a great opportunity for that talented Leafs core to change the narrative.
“You know, it comes down to the players and finding a way to get past Tampa and if they can do that, who knows what the next thing looks like,” McElhinney said. “I think that would be a huge sigh of relief for that team.
“But at the same time, it kind of feels like you’re holding your breath right now because it’s like, ‘Here we go again.’ The nice part is, you’re in a great situation. You’ve got three games, win two of them and you’re going to the second round which is what they’ve been dying for the last few years.”
The Lightning, meanwhile, went into Game 4 on Sunday night feeling the pressure of needing to tie the series.
McElhinney suspects it was total calmness in that dressing room before Game 4.
“I’m sure it was a quiet room. They know what they need to do,” said McElhinney, who played 30 games with the Bolts in 2019-2020 and 2020-21. “It’s just about putting on their work boots with that group. It’s as cliché as it gets but I’m sorry, it’s really what it is with that group. They know what it takes. The coaching staff has the full trust of that group to step up. Your elite guys step up. Your fourth-line guys step up and make plays. And it doesn’t hurt when you have Vasilevskiy in the pipes, too.
“At every position you look, you’ve got guys who can make a difference.”
McElhinney points out how Victor Hedmannominated for the Norris Trophy on Monday, steps up when his team faces adversity and that’s happened again in this series.
“If we go back to the first bubble playoffs and if you can remember how he played in that one when Stamkos was out, he just put that team on his back. And really went to another level,” McElhinney said of the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
“And I think we’ve seen him do that a couple of games here where Tampa needed to get back in the series and even it up. …
“That’s what you get to appreciate when you watch elite players and you go, ‘Oh wow, that’s a guy that can take over a game when he really wants to.”’
There are mere mortal NHLers, and there are elite players who can do things no one else can.
“It’s kind of how I felt also skating alongside Vasilevskiy every day,” said McElhinney.
This is what Matthews and Marner have the chance to do right now. Put the team on their shoulders.
“Those guys are big-time players. Auston and Mitch have really just gone to another level,” said McElhinney. “But now it’s about allowing that team to get over that hump. It’s not just two, three guys alone. They need everyone to pitch in. (Jack) Campbell was great in Game 3. Now it’s about him responding in the next game. Those elite guys have to offensively contributed, that’s always expected. They did it all season long and pulled that team through some stuff.
“But now it’s about getting past this first round for that organization at this point,” added McElhinney. “And I think if they’re able to do that, it’s probably a weight off their shoulders that I can’t even imagine that’s been sitting there for the last couple of years.”
What’s interesting is that McElhinney has seen Tampa slay its own demons in the way the Leafs hope to now. He joined the Lightning in the summer of 2019 after the club won 62 regular-season games the previous season but then got swept in the opening round by Columbus.
The motivation from that crushing loss was apparent when he got to Tampa that summer.
“You get to that point, you get bounced in the first round by Columbus, that humiliating playoff loss after having that sensational season; my timing for coming to the group was impeccable, just very fortunate to get that opportunity to slide in there,” said McElhinney.
“That core group certainly had a chip on their shoulder heading into the (2020) bubble. That was a pretty humiliating first-round loss to Columbus, not to take anything away from the Jackets. But that certainly wasn’t how that year was supposed to go.”
Two straight Cup runs followed.
So, whatever adversity comes now, it’s a Lightning team that won’t be overwhelmed by the moment.
Which doesn’t guarantee a series win over the Leafs, who have home-ice advantage. But it probably means the Lightning have the moxie to at least not beat themselves.
“That Tampa core has been there and done that numerous times,” said McElhinney.
The Leafs? A series win could open up all kinds of fun for them.
“If you are part of that organization when they make it past the first round or maybe further, that’s a pretty incredible place to be,” said McElhinney.
We’re about to find out which of McElhinney’s former teams prevail. Either the Tampa dream of a three-peat remains alive, or the Leafs finally slay their first-round dragon.
(Top photo: Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)