For all fans watching, I’m sure last night’s overtime loss is still all too fresh in the memory bank, and many will be entering tonight’s game fearing the worst. For the Toronto Maple Leafs players and coaching staff, though, they will need to put the collapse immediately behind them as they attempt to stave off elimination in Game 4 tonight (8 p.m., CBC).
Really, the fact that the Leafs have statistically held a clear advantage through three games this series isn’t worth spending much time talking about. There is plenty there to like in terms of the team’s collective play since the restart, but it’s their response to swings of momentum within games that continues to be their undoing.
Most of Toronto’s better minutes came earlier in the game as they built up their three-goal lead. For the better part of five periods in a row by that point, the Leafs were able to gain the zone effectively and maintain offensive-zone pressure without frequently losing numbers in transition the other way or letting a sleepy Columbus offense gain any real foothold in the game.
When the team’s approach did seem to change, unfortunately, was once they scored the third goal. The Leafs started forfeiting possession more frequently with one-and-done rush chances, allowed more chances in transition, and couldn’t seem to avoid making the next big mistake all the way to an inexcusable 4-3 loss in OT.
Of course, we could be sitting here feeling much differently had Frederik Andersen made an extra miraculous save or Seth Jones’ shot hadn’t found a path through a series of bodies into the top corner, but it’s a moot point. The Leafs have put themselves in this situation, and it’s on them to respond tonight, or else this Return-to-Play playoff opportunity is going to be over in a flash with a long offseason of soul-searching to follow.
A non-factor in Game 1 before coming alive in Game 2, the bottom line with Pierre Engvall-Kyle Clifford-Jason Spezza had their best performance of the series last night. Both Clifford and Engvall eclipsed 10 minutes played at 5-on-5, barely allowing anything defensively in their minutes outside of Clifford’s “creative” breakout pass at the defensive blue line that resulted in a Columbus 2-on-1 in the third period. Overall, they finished with a 94% share of Expected Goals as a line. Their ability to provide an energy presence in a back-to-back situation following an almost 80-minute game could provide a much-needed boost if they can carry Game 3’s performance over into tonight.
The much bigger X factor, though, is how the goaltending battle shakes out. You could be forgiven for forgetting the Maple Leafs chased Joonas Korpisalo from the net after Nick Robertson’s bad-angle shot on his first NHL goal snuck through to make it 3-0. Elvis Merzlikins, his replacement last night and the superior goalie statistically this season, will remain in net to start Game 4. John Tortorella appears to be betting on the rookie to win the goaltending battle versus a (tired) Frederik Andersen as the fresher, less scouted option in net.
Sheldon Keefe spoke last night about this team always responding to “adventurous” losses — of which there have been plenty this season — with a big bounce-back win, and confidently stated he is expecting the same tonight. There were four or five instances Keefe was no doubt referring to here, and all took place inside a month and a half between mid-January and late-February: A 6-2 loss to Chicago was followed up by a 5-2 win in Nashville, the David Ayres game was followed up by an impressive 4-3 win over Tampa Bay, a blowout 8-4 loss to Florida was followed up by a seven-goal performance in a victory over New Jersey, and a blowout loss to Pittsburgh was followed up by a convincing 4-0 shutout win over the same Penguins team a few days later. There was also a good final win over Tampa Bay just before the pause after a brutal California road trip.
The Leafs have those experiences to lean on to some extent, but this is the playoffs, they’re playing the same opponent for the fourth game in a row, and this is a Columbus team that impressively closed out Tampa Bay when the Lightning were on the ropes last Spring. The Leafs are up against it now, with it all on the line and one last chance to rewrite the script on their thus-far-maddening 2019-20 season.
We’ll leave Alec Brownscombe with the final word ahead of tonight’s game:
Here is the thing.
This Leafs team, in order to get over the playoff hump, was never going to walk into the postseason and start ripping off series sweeps like the LA Kings of 2012. There is too much baggage surrounding this team for it to happen that way.
It was always going to be some sort of ridiculous, self-inflicted hole they’ll need to learn to dig themselves out of that will serve as a springboard for their first-ever legitimate playoff run.
Maybe it’s next year or the year after that it finally happens. But all I’m saying is that there is still a possibility this is it — this year.
Enjoy the game.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on how much a coach can coach mental toughness, and how much of it is honed within players through experience:
There is a little bit of all of that. It is on the coach to frame it correctly and share the right messages. A lot of the work for situations like this, though, isn’t just what you say today. We’ve talked about mental toughness and the need to push through when things are difficult. We talked about that all throughout the pause and since day one of training camp. The work for that is done in advance, and we get a chance today to utilize it.
Keefe on what the team needs to improve on from Game 3:
We just need to get back to what we were doing in Games 1 and 2. That is why I was so disappointed yesterday. I talked about the purpose and plan of the way we play. That is what we have been talking about since day one of camp. I thought we did a really good job of that in both Games 1 and 2. We allowed one goal against in those two games. It really sets us up for success. I thought there was a real departure from that yesterday.
That is why I didn’t feel good about it from the start in terms of how we were playing and how we generated our lead. Certainly, once we had the lead, it should’ve been over if we had the right mindset and mentality and played with the purpose we had been talking about. We talked about it a lot on the bench and TV timeouts and in intermissions and such.
We weren’t able to get it there, but today is a new day, a new opportunity for us to push back and get back on track.
John Tortorella on how a team develops mental toughness:
In order to develop mental toughness, you need to go through experiences. Do you fall in the fetal position, or do you handle it head-on? Do you succeed or do you fail? All of those things you learn through experience. It is not from coaching. It is from players experiencing certain situations.
The mental part of the game, to me, far outweighs the Xs and Os of the game right now. That is something we do try to coach quite a bit — a lot more than Xs and Os. But then it falls on the players how they handle it.
Tortorella on tonight’s starter, Elvis Merzlikins:
He is sure of himself. He has that personality that he is not afraid. He has grown. Let’s face it: When he first started in the NHL, he was awful. He grew pretty quickly, started understanding the league, started respecting the league. That is a very important bridge for him to cross — to respect the league. I think he has worked on his game with Manny [Legace], the mental part of the game, and has turned into a terrific player.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#73 Kyle Clifford – #47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza
#52 Martin Marincin – #3 Justin Holl
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#23 Travis Dermott – #94 Tyson Barrie
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Marner – Tavares – Matthews
Robertson – Kerfoot – Spezza
Extras: Rasmus Sandin, Denis Malgin, Nic Petan, Calle Rosen, Frederik Gauthier
Injured: Andreas Johnsson, Jake Muzzin
Columbus Blue Jackets Projected Lines
#42 Alexandre Texier – #18 Pierre-Luc Dubois – #13 Cam Atkinson
#19 Liam Foudy – #10 Alexander Wennberg – #28 Oliver Bjorkstrand
#14 Gustav Nyquist -#71 Nick Foligno – #38 Boone Jenner
#50 Eric Robinson – #20 Riley Nash – #24 Nathan Gerbe
#8 Zach Werenski – #3 Seth Jones
#44 Vladislav Gavrikov – #58 David Savard
#27 Ryan Murray – #46 Dean Kukan
#90 Elvis Merzlikins (starter)
#70 Joonas Korpisalo
Injured: Josh Anderson