They’ve snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Game 3. They’ve snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (and season-ending elimination) in Game 4. Now we find out if the Toronto Maple Leafs can win their first winner-take-all playoff game since April 20, 2004 tonight in Game 5 (8 p.m. ET, Sportsnet, NBCSN).
You would be forgiven if a sleep-in was needed on Saturday morning after what was an unprecedented playoff overtime back-to-back in which the Leafs became the first team ever to both cough up a three-goal lead and come back from a three-goal deficit — all inside a 24-hour timeframe.
The second comeback, starting with 3:57 left in the third when William Nylander made it 3-1, may well go down as a top-five game in modern Leafs history. However, the fondness with which it is remembered is going to be heavily impacted by what transpires tonight. It could be the springboard the team needed to win its first “playoff” series since 2004, or it could perfectly encapsulate the cycle of false hope and crushing disappointment fans of this organization are all too accustomed to.
Tonight, the goal is nothing short of the most competitive and consistent 60 minutes of the series so far. With a day-and-a-half rest, an unfathomable loss for Columbus, and a still-unbelievable victory for Toronto fresh on the minds of the players, the Leafs need to sustain their momentum and attempt to break the Blue Jackets’ will with a strong start to the game tonight; they’ve yet to score an early goal in this series, and tonight would be the perfect time for one.
In his pre-game availability, John Tortorella has indicated his lineup will look the same tonight, with defensemen Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray returning after both were banged up and missed time in Game 4. Tortorella had moved to a more balanced look at forward on Friday, with both the Riley Nash line and Alex Wennberg line having the best nights statistically.
It was primarily Boone Jenner’s line with Nick Foligno and Gustav Nyquist that took on the Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner line — a line that swapped Zach Hyman for John Tavares (the so-called nuclear option) for 12 of Matthews’ 21:07 of 5-on-5 ice time. It’s difficult to say if Columbus will look that way again tonight — despite Tortorella’s assurances — given how many times he’s gone back on his word. We’ll just have to wait until game time to see.
While we wait to see what Keefe has in store for the Leafs‘ top-six combinations to start the game, a staple through much of the series has been team’s fourth line. We knew that depth would be a bigger factor than usual for both teams on Friday, and that’s what we got — the Leafs‘ bottom line had their best game of the series while Columbus, as mentioned, went for a more balanced look than in games 1 through 3.
The Clifford-Engvall-Spezza line had the best overall possession impact of any line in the game, finishing with over 75% of the shot share and Expected Goals share in their minutes. The trio played a total 9:22 at 5-on-5 in Game 4 after just 8:42 in a longer game the night before.
In net, the Blue Jackets will turn back to Joonas Korpisalo, with Elvis Merzlikins reportedly picking up an injury in Game 4. In case you’ve lost track, Korpisalo was in net all series up until Nick Robertson put the Leafs up 3-0 in Game 3, at which point he was pulled for Elvis Merzlikins before the Blue Jackets’ comeback. After 96 minutes of shutout hockey to open the series, Korpisalo conceded five goals in his next 53 minutes of game action before Merzlikins took over for the second half of Game 3 and all of Game 4.
On the other end, of course, will be Frederik Andersen, who is looking to put the forgettable Game 7s behind him in the past two playoffs with a big performance in a do-or-die situation tonight.
Game Day Quotes
John Tortorella on how this series compares entertainment-wise to others he’s coached in:
I don’t remember a whole lot way back, but I don’t remember [a series] with this size of momentum swings we’ve had here. That’s what’s made it such a great series.
Tortorella on how the team feels after the crazy finish to Game 4:
Oh, we’re fine. We feel we have the momentum no matter what happened there. I think momentum is a funny thing. If you want to give it back to them, you lose it. If you don’t want to give it to them, you keep it on your side — that’s kind of a psychological thing. We’re good and ready to play.
Tortorella on lineup changes for tonight:
Not changing. We thought we played a good game. We pissed it away in a couple of bad plays in a couple of minutes. We thought we played a good game. We’re going to go play the same way.
Sheldon Keefe on the team’s readiness heading into a winner-take-all game:
Well, I think we’ve seen a lot of little moments inside of every game that have shown the urgency that’s required this time of year. We’ve got more than enough guys that have been in these types of situations before as a group.
Keefe on Auston Matthews’ work in this series:
I just think his commitment defensively has just been off the charts. How competitive he’s been tracking coming back into our end, blocking shots, getting into lanes — a lot of things that don’t necessarily end up on the scoresheet or anything like that. He’s not doing it for recognition or anything. He’s just doing because that’s what’s required to win. He’s really taken a massive step forward in that regard — not just now but before the shutdown.
Keefe on the importance of mental toughness vs. tactical adjustments:
I really think [mental toughness] is what it’s about, especially when you get to this point in the series when you know your opponent and you know what your opponent is going to be like in terms of the structure and the different pieces. It really just comes down to staying with it. There’s no greater example than what we had the other night. Really, in both games 3 and 4, you realize it’s not over until it ends at the buzzer. That resiliency and that mental toughness is what really comes to the forefront at this time.
Expected Goals Trend — Games 1–4
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#91 John Tavares – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#11 Zach Hyman – #88 William Nylander – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#73 Kyle Clifford – #47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza
#23 Travis Dermott – #3 Justin Holl
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#52 Martin Marincin – #94 Tyson Barrie
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Marner – Tavares – Matthews
Hyman – Kerfoot – Spezza
Extras: Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, Denis Malgin, Nic Petan, Calle Rosen, Frederik Gauthier
Injured: 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
#70 Joonas Korpisalo (starter)
#90 Elvis Merzlikins
Injured: Josh Anderson