Thirteen days into this glorious circus, we are but hours away from knowing how it ends.
What has become obvious is the identity of the ringmaster.
The series between the Leafs and Bruins has belonged to Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle.
He has tinkered, line matched, played hunches and held grudges.
He has been the constant in a wildly-fluctuating two weeks.
It was Carlyle, remember, who guided the Leafs to a record of 26-17-5 and their first playoff in nine years. He reconfigured the club into the league’s most enthusiastic fighters and restored the organization’s credibility.
He installed a defence-first template and managed a tighter, more cohesive dressing room where players brushed aside the spectre of past failures and endless speculation over the goaltending.
Then he took a young club bereft of playoff experience to a seventh game against a Bruins team with 17 holdovers from its 2011 championship.
Carlyle wields playing time like an axe. He insisted that Jake Gardiner had much more than he showed in the late season and kept him out of the first playoff game.
That took nerve. Gardiner, while untracked by a mid-season concussion, rivals only Phil Kessel as the Leafs’ most talented player. Returned to the lineup, Gardiner’s game has been superb and his two way play has been one of the fulcrums on which the series has turned.
Carlyle occupied his Boston counterpart Claude Julien with constant line-juggling and re-inserted Matt Frattin into the lineup in Game 2 with simple enough instructions: hit something. Frattin’s scoring depends on his aggressiveness. While his offence has not yet returned, Frattin has been dangerous and engaged throughout.
Carlyle yanked Clarke MacArthur out of the lineup and then put him back in. MacArthur responded with two goals.
He lived with Nikolai Kulemin’s lack of offence and used he and Mikhail Grabovski as energy players to throw into the buzzsaw of the Bruins’ offence.
He overplayed Phaneuf in Game 4, realized it, then cut his minutes by 10 in Game 5. Phaneuf had his best two games of the series in Games 5 and 6.
In the wake of the injury to Mark Fraser, Carlyle paired Ryan O’Byrne with his former Colorado teammate John-Michael Liles. The two have delivered precisely what Carlyle coveted: quiet minutes.
Carlyle shut down Kadri’s ice time because he felt he was spending too much time going East-West and was therefore vulnerable to back checkers. Kadri had his best showing in Game 6.
Somehow Carlyle has managed a team that was soundly beaten in Game 1 and nervous losers in Games 3 and 4 to within one win of the series.
He has done so with a narrow influence of control. He can’t heal whatever is ailing Bozak. Nor can he go with anyone other than Jay McClement to win draws. McClement was 8-8 in Game 6. The rest of the Leafs went 12-32.
He has nonetheless limited David Krejci in the last two games while continuing to keep Nathan Horton, Tyler Sequin and Brad Marchant in check.
Carlyle has squeezed three goals out of Phil Kessel. After four years in which he had been completely negated by the Bruins and Zdeno Chara. Kessel is playing with confidence.
He has leaned on Cody Franson, cut out Leo Komarov and cheerfully occupied the media with thoughtful quotes while betraying absolutely nothing about his intentions.
Carlyle has perfectly projected his vision. When things go right they are expected. When they sour, they are corrected.
Regardless of what happens tonight, he has established himself at the centre of the franchise. Randy Carlyle said he would return accountability. He has been true to his word.