May 19, 2024

TORONTO—Sheldon Keefe’s crew had a decision to make.

The Maple Leafs’ head coach watched his team put on a horrible Game 4 performance at home against the Boston Bruins, leaving them in a 3-1 series hole against an opponent who appeared to be on cruise control to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The terrible performance last Saturday also featured top Toronto players Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander fighting on the bench, bringing unpleasant narratives from previous postseason failures back to the forefront.

No heart. Not tough enough. A poorly built roster. Overpaid.

The Leafs might have called it quits. Instead, they opted to continue fighting.

“I challenged the group,” Keefe said Thursday, after Toronto tied Boston 3-3 in their best-of-seven series. “When your back is against the wall and you’re about to be eliminated, you’ll be remembered in one way or another.

“How do you want that to be and to look?”

Following consecutive 2-1 victory — one in overtime in Boston and Thursday’s hard-fought decision on the same ice where the club was booed off last weekend — Toronto is pleased with how things are shaping up for Saturday’s winner-take-all Game 7 at TD Garden.

“They didn’t lay down,” said Keefe, whose team blocked 27 shots in Game 6 to Boston’s 14. “They did not accept their fate. “They changed it.”

 

Maple Leafs inches from elimination after third loss to Bruins at 3-1 - The  Globe and Mail
Minus the ailing Matthews, who is clearly far from 100 percent healthy and has missed the last two do-or-die games after scoring 69 times in the regular season, Toronto has forced only its fourth Game 7 in franchise history after trailing a series 3-1, thanks in large part to its defensive commitment and the performance of rookie goaltender Joseph Woll.

The 25-year-old replaced Ilya Samsonov, who was not bad in the series but was outplayed by Jeremy Swayman on the other end of the rink, late in Game 4. Woll capitalized on his opportunity, conceding only two goals against in just over seven periods.

Nylander, who missed the previous three games due to an unknown illness, was also important, supplying all of the offense on Thursday.

“We came in with the mindset that we had nothing to lose,” said rookie striker Matthew Knies, who has raised his game to new heights. “We’re just excited to go back (to Boston) and finish the deal.”

One team will deviate from the norm on Saturday. The other will have to answer more difficult questions.

Toronto has lost five consecutive Game 7s, three against the Boston Bruins (2013, 2018, and 2019).

The Original Six franchise’s only series win when needing three straight victories to escape elimination—the Leafs fell short in 2013 and 2018—came in 1942, when the team won four in a row after falling behind the Detroit Red Wings 3-0 in the Cup final.

“Great opportunity,” commented skipper John Tavares. “The group’s stayed together, continued to work.”

Meanwhile, Boston is urgently trying to avoid being the first club in NHL history to lose a 3-1 lead in consecutive seasons. The Florida Panthers, who await Saturday’s winner, rallied to defeat the Bruins almost a year ago.

“We’re not living in the past or the future,” Boston head coach Jim Montgomery stated. “We’re living in the present.”

Tyler Bertuzzi, a Toronto winger, has a fairly decent notion of how things are going in the Boston locker room right now. He witnessed last season’s collapse firsthand in black and gold before joining with the Leafs in free agency.

“I think everyone’s frustrated over there,” he told me.

The Bruins, who have dropped six straight games and have the opportunity to eliminate a club as they hobble back to TD Garden, are looking for answers.

“There’s always hope,” Montgomery emphasized. “There is an opportunity to participate in Game 7. You grew up yearning to be a part of it. We have a chance to take part in it.

“We’ve got to go in there and we’ve got to dig in.”

The Leafs left for dead less than a week ago.

“In my mind, we’ve already played two Game 7s,” he remarked. “(But) all we have earned is another game on the schedule. “As proud as you are of the group’s efforts and results, it’s important to remember that we earned it.”

The Leafs, the first franchise in NHL history to force Game 7 after falling behind 3-1 in the series three times against the same opponent, now have a chance to create a far different story than what appeared to be the case less than a week before.

Nylander was asked what it’s like to compete in a winner-takes-all final. In these moments, the winger is well aware of Toronto’s recent sad history.

“Special,” he replied with a smile. “I don’t know if we’ve won one yet, but we’re up to the test.”

The Leafs have overcome a couple of major challenges, with one more to come.

This item from The Canadian Press was first published on May 3, 2024.

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