Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Three keys to the Leafs winning Game 5 and erasing their playoff demons
By Joshua Kloke
Aug 8, 2020
It didn’t last long, but for a brief second on Saturday afternoon, the normally serious Sheldon Keefe almost cracked a smile.
He was being asked about whether the three-goal lead has become the most dangerous in hockey after the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jackets each surrendered one in Games 3 and 4 of their Eastern Conference qualifying-round series.
“What we’ve come to expect really is that each game, despite there being some similarities, they really have their own personalities,” the Leafs’ head coach said.
It’s clear why he’d smile, even in exasperation. There’s still a sense of bewilderment about the Leafs given the way things have shaken out. They have swung from dominant one game to inefficient and lackadaisical the next.
The momentum is now on their side after mounting an improbable three-goal comeback over a 3:34 stretch in the third period on Friday night that led to them winning Game 4 in overtime. The result stunned Jason Spezza, he of 17 NHL seasons.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” Spezza, 37, said on Friday.
Now, Spezza will try to be a part of another act that has not occurred throughout much of his career: a Leafs postseason series win. They’ve lost five series since beating the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2004.
Defeating the Blue Jackets would allow the Leafs, as The Athletic’s James Mirtle wrote on Saturday, a chance to rewrite their own narrative.
“The key for us, of course, is to ride the momentum into the next game but recognize that it’s a fresh scoreboard,” Keefe said.
How can the Leafs close out the Blue Jackets in Game 5 on Sunday evening? More than a few things will have to go their way.
Develop the belief they can close out a seriesKeefe has adopted a far dourer tone with the media throughout the past week than he has all season. He’s often been critical of his team and terse with his answers.
That is why one of his rare moments of light ahead of Game 3 stuck out. Keefe was discussing how the Leafs would use the Toronto Raptors’ dressing room that evening.
“That’s kind of cool and unique and we talked a bit about it,” Keefe said on Thursday. “Lots of winning has gone on in that room and hopefully, we can get some of that to rub off on us.”
Watching the Raptors become NBA champions last season meant watching them lean on Kawhi Leonard, who oozed a rare brand of self-belief in difficult moments. He’d been there, having won a championship in 2014. There was no doubt who was getting the ball when the game was on the line.
Right now, it could be argued the Leafs don’t have that kind of player. They’re getting close, but without a series win among their core players, they’re not there yet. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, but how does a team develop a belief it can win a series-clinching game when it hasn’t done it before?
Mitch Marner believes that will only come by believing in, and adhering to, a style of play that has made them as successful as it did in a Game 2 win.
“We know that their chances are coming off the turnovers we’re giving them and the odd-man rushes the other way,” Marner said. “For our team, I think we’re doing well in our D-zone staying tight, staying (with) five men and getting out to our point when need be. We can’t make ourselves lose. We can’t beat ourselves.”
Or, trust the process, as it were.
“We know that we can play a great defensive game when we put our minds to it, backchecking-wise, forechecking and not giving them a whole lot coming up the ice,” Marner said. “It’s something we have got to make sure we have in our minds that we know if we play the right way defensively, we’re going to get our chances offensively. And I think we’ve just got to have that belief that we’ll score on one of those chances we do get.”
Besides high-octane offence, one thing the Leafs showed in the final minutes of Game 4 that hasn’t always been evident against Columbus was a sense of staying power.
“We had the belief in our room and on that bench that we could come back,” Marner said.
Keefe noticed that staying power when he was asked after the game what he would remember most from the comeback.
“Just the resilience of our team and how it just put new life in our group,” Keefe said.
If the Leafs can carry that resilience into Game 5, there’s a decent chance they’ll develop that belief that great teams have and good teams just long for.
“The amount of joy that I saw from our team was beyond anything that I’ve seen from us,” Keefe said. “But we have to bring that momentum forward but recognize that it’s a new game.”
Get game-breaking performances from the game-breakersThe manner in which Keefe loaded the ice with his stars in the final minutes of Game 4 was intriguing for, and can be interpreted in, a number of ways. Perhaps it was a desperation play from Keefe to get Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Zach Hyman out there together. Maybe he thought those six, who had just seven even-strength points combined before the third period of Game 4, would wear the series loss to Columbus more than the rest of their teammates and deserved a chance to change their fate.
One thing is for certain: Keefe has a pretty clear pecking order when it comes to who to play in the most important situations. Those six players are at the top of the list.
Keefe will need more of the same from that core, which registered nine even-strength points combined in that final flurry of action.
That includes possibly rolling out a line of Matthews, Tavares and Marner, which Tyson Barrie has described as an “All-Star Game line.”
Keefe conceded Saturday that the coaching staff didn’t spend a great deal of time on Saturday discussing that line, though still had praise for the trio.
“I liked the look of that line. I like what it brings,” Keefe said.
That was clear: Matthews’s 28:15 of ice time on Friday was the most he’s played in a playoff game. Marner’s 27:58 was the second most by just two seconds. And Tavares’ 26:52 was the third most he’s played in his 35 playoff games.
Those six showed what they’re capable of when Keefe instills a weighty sense of trust in them. They rescued the Leafs’ season from the brink. If anything, that late-game response will likely give Keefe the confidence to roll with them as much as possible on Sunday evening. And it’s doubtful we’ve seen the last of the Matthews-Tavares-Marner combo.
“Even the times when we haven’t liked our team game or our structure hasn’t been what I expect from our team, I think we’ve had some individual performances that have been really good,” Keefe said. “Just the effort and the commitment that we’re seeing from some guys that I think are at a higher level than we’ve seen from them before. And that’s what we’ve been asking for.”
Load up on RiellyLet’s put Rielly’s defensive-zone gaffe that led to the Blue Jackets’ third goal last night aside. He’s moved well and has created offensive opportunities all series. The Leafs have had 55.5 percent of the expected goals against Columbus with Rielly on the ice at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick.
His 33:51 of ice time in Game 4 was the second most of his playoff career. And perhaps just as notable was the 2:28 he spent on the power play. It would appear Keefe sees him as the de-facto option on the blue line for the first power-play unit.
Rielly has been a rare bright spot on the blue line, and his importance to the Leafs’ success this series is only amplified with the absence of Jake Muzzin.
And with the amount of confidence Keefe has in Rielly, it’s likely he’s in for another heavy workload on Sunday. His ability to be aggressive in the offensive zone and responsible in the defensive zone makes him a linchpin for any short-term postseason success.
“He’s just getting better and better every game,” Keefe said. “He seems to be more and more comfortable in his skating. Certainly the last two games, the way he’s skated up and down the ice and getting involved both offensively and defensively, I think he looks really, really comfortable in that regard. And in my mind, has taken a really big step here since our loss of (Muzzin).”