The Toronto Maple Leafs were dead and buried.

That’s no exaggeration. Game 4 was over from a competitive standpoint according to every instinct or intuition hockey fans use when we watch games. It was all done but the crying — and there was going to be a lot of that, a lot trade proposals involving core players, a lot second-guessing of everyone from Brendan Shanahan on down… for months and months on end as we waited for a hopeful December start to the next season. It would’ve been a depressingly familiar place to live in for fans of this franchise — endless talk about losing cultures, entitled and overpaid players, skill vs. grit, defensive hockey being winning hockey at playoff time, Kyle Dubas’ mistaken vision.

This was it. Over.

Like many fans, I was sending off angry tweets as William Nylander and Mitch Marner were playing goaltender while Columbus tried to seal the deal into the empty net. Pierre Luc Dubois hit the side netting of the empty cage with a chance to cap a series in which his star performances in Games 3 and 4 basically tipped the series; a goal there would’ve been Dubois’ fourth of the series, meaning the 22-year-old, still on an entry-level deal, would have outscored the Leafs’ $40 million core of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares, who had three total goals over the series at that point in the night.

But then the Leafs did this.

And now an entirely new reality isn’t guaranteed, but all possibilities remain alive. It’s anyone’s series.

Some scattered thoughts after some time to reflect:

  I still can’t believe this actually happened as I am typing this out. Beyond the fact that if you replayed the final five minutes of that game with the same players in the same set of circumstances with the Leafs down 3-0, they lose the next 99 times, I’ve watched enough of this Leafs team to know when the group just doesn’t have it, and they really looked like they didn’t have it last night.

Chronically poor in back-to-back situations the past few years, it looked a lot like the second game in 24 hrs in game 48 of the regular season versus, say, the Minnesota Wild on a Wednesday night. That was pretty alarming given the stakes of the game, but it just had that feel — they lacked a little bit of jump, a little bit of sharpness in their execution. They’d enter the zone, the play would break down, and Columbus would be up and out of the zone; none of the second and third efforts were consistent enough to sustain the offensive-zone pressure required to break down a stingy Columbus team.

One thing the Leafs need to get a handle on for Game 5 is that the Blue Jackets’ transition offense has been coming to life since the second half of Game 3. The Leafs have been feeding into it by generating fewer of the long and heavy o-zone shifts, while also getting caught in bad spots when pucks turn over, giving up numbers.

But Sheldon Keefe got the extra man on the ice (the Leafs scored all four goals that way) nice and early, the dam broke, Elvis Merzlikins’ five-hole parted like the red sea, and the rest is history.

–  William Nylander. Wow. Anthony has done a great job covering the growth he’s shown in his goal-scoring repertoire and how he’s gone through the Nazem Kadri-like transformation in terms of his recognition of where on the ice most of the goals in the NHL are scored. His net-front work came up huge in both Game 2 and to kick off the comeback last night. But the play that sticks out even more for me, and demonstrates perfectly the ice that courses through Nylander’s veins, was prior to the 3-3 goal by Hyman.

We aren’t sitting here today talking about any of this if he didn’t show the patience he displayed breaking the puck up ice when the game was at 3-2 with precious seconds ticking off the clock; he circled and protected the puck in his own zone, shed the forechecker, and then ripped through neutral ice to set up the zone.

We saw a preview of this as recently as before the pause when the California road trip went off the rails; he was far and away their best forward on the trip because he’s an antidote to the trap, and his overall competitiveness and strength on pucks goes generally underappreciated.

– One of the biggest surprises for me throughout the series up until the end of this game was how quiet Zach Hyman had been. It just seemed like his kind of series he would thrive in, and he hadn’t consistently willed the team into it or made things happen in the way we’ve all come to expect. That all changed inside a few minutes at the end of the game with his plays on the 3-1 and 3-3 goals.

All that time Hyman spent developing his skills playing with good players on the left side of the ice (his off side) surely came in handy there on the 3-3. He backed Jones off nicely carrying the puck down the wall with a move on his backhand, then circled up when the Leafs set the zone and spotted Matthews. Matthews’ pass took him a little by surprise, but he took it nicely skate-to-stick to bury the game-tying goal.

–  I’ve rewatched the replay closely on the Travis Dermott block in front on Oliver Bjorkstrand in overtime and I’m about 90% sure that puck is going far side and in.

Dermott hasn’t been brutal by any means, but it had to be a bit disappointing to receive the nod to step up in Muzzin’s absence, be involved in a crucial goal against in a 3-0 collapse in Game 3, and get bumped out for Martin Marincin. Putting the last game or period or shift behind you and making the next one count is what playoffs are all about. Until it’s over, there is always an opportunity to flip the script.

– Speaking of flipping the script, Morgan Rielly‘s game was an adventure and he was wearing the goat horns on the 3-0 Jenner goal. He broke his stick on the bench in total disgust with himself. Then this:

And he keeps the puck in for the Matthews winner.

This game had a lot in common with the dramatic 8-6 win over Carolina before Christmas. Keefe just played his stars for like 10 straight minutes, Auston Matthews decided he was going to take over the game, and Jason Spezza played a key role in both earlier in the game prior to the comeback (he scored on a makeshift line with Tavares vs. Carolina, this time he sparked the team with a fight — what? — and led from a fourth-line role with a great performance from his line).

I hope the Leafs, in their ongoing maturation process, took the time to be “extremely proud” — as Matthews put it — and then sobered up quickly and recognized the team can’t put itself in that position again tomorrow. I wouldn’t personally count on a team with Columbus’ pride coughing up more leads.

I am not here to revise history on the game by pretending that you can draw a straight line from Jason Spezza’s fight to the William Nylander goal — it was followed by a penalty kill, an intermission, more uninspiring play, and a third Columbus “put-away” goal. But what was almost certainly a contributing intangible factor in this comeback was Spezza’s desperation, refusal to quit, and incredible intensity on the bench — and all of those qualities were encapsulated by the fight. My respect for Spezza more than doubled last night.

There is justice in this series going the distance. Despite the shortened series length, everything seems to have balanced out, setting the stage for a winner-take-all Game 5 on Sunday night.

Columbus was full marks for Game 1, as tight as the game was. The Leafs were full marks for Game 2. The Leafs threw away Game 3. Columbus threw away Game 4. Jake Muzzin was lost from the series due to injury a few games back; Zach Werenski missed a good chunk of the third last night as the chaos unfolded and his status is questionable for Game 5. The Leafs were shooting something like 2% at 5v5 and then all of a sudden scored on every shot just as the series was about over. Rookie goaltender Elvis Merzlikins looked unflappable and was stopping everything until he looked terrified and couldn’t stop anything.  It’s what the playoffs are all about.

Throughout the series, the site has been receiving emails from an anonymous Columbus man claiming that the following sentence from Anthony Petrielli’s article made its way into the Columbus locker room: “Columbus simply doesn’t have the star power to match up with [Toronto], and it showed in Game 2.”

He’s persistent, and he has been sending follow up emails about it. He told us it was being shown to Tortorella, who showed it to the team, and that both the team and Tortorella loved it.

I have no idea if it’s true, but I kind of want it to be. 

See you Sunday.