It’s the Game 7 no one in Toronto wanted.
Coming off of a second consecutive wasted put-away opportunity in which the team inexplicably started slowly, clawed their way back from a multi-goal deficit, and lost in overtime in gut-wrenching fashion, it still feels pretty surreal to say — 48 hours after the Game 6 loss at the Bell Centre — that this series has come down to a winner-take-all Game 7 scenario for the Leafs.
It wouldn’t be melodramatic to suggest the outcome of this game could prove to be legacy-defining and franchise-altering for the core and management group of these Maple Leafs.
The unfortunate position the Leafs have put themselves in here is that winning this game tonight may feel more like a big relief for many fans of this team than true cause for jubilation. It would be a hugely important slaying of the dragon and a new lease on life heading into the next series, but for many, it would be understandable if belief in the credibility of this team’s Cup aspirations would need to be won back in the second round.
It’s still, of course, infinitely preferable to the alternative scenario tonight, which… well, we won’t even go there in terms of the big-picture questions and soul-searching such an outcome would engender.
There is a small silver lining in that the team has not gone away quietly after suffering multi-goal deficits in the last two games, but the bar is on the floor here if that is our standard for this team. There is no excuse for the Leafs not to start on time and score first tonight.
The adversity the team is facing is not made any easier by the news that Jake Muzzin’s injury from Game 5 will force him out of the lineup for at least three weeks. Leafs fans are no doubt sensing some bad deja vu dating back to Muzzin’s absence during the team’s series-deciding games against Columbus last August.
Rasmus Sandin will be Muzzin’s replacement this time, but Travis Dermott will likely take a larger share of Muzzin’s ice time. We won’t know until warmups who will play with Justin Holl and who will play with Zach Bogosian. We may see a reuniting of Dermott-Holl (which we saw in the Columbus series, and Keefe went away from after a Game 3 loss), but there is also a solid case to be made that Dermott-Bogosian has been dependable and there could be merit to keeping two of the regular pairings together.
Regardless of how the bottom four on defense shakes out, Keefe will rely a ton on Morgan Rielly and T.J Brodie. The two approached 30 minutes of ice time in Saturday’s 75-minute game, and they’ve earned it with their dependable play at 5v5.
At forward, there is no shortage of calls for Keefe to break up Matthews and Marner in favour of Matthews-Nylander, but having never moved away from the former combination all season outside of Matthews’ injury-related absences, it’s doubtful Keefe starts that way. There is no question on whom the spotlight is burning brightest among the player group entering tonight, with Marner goalless in his last 17 playoff appearances (0 goals, 10 assists, -6 plus/minus) and Matthews still looking for his first goal since Game 2 of this series. The adjustments Keefe makes on the power play, in his line combinations, and in William Nylander’s ice time will also be subjects of great scrutiny.
For the Habs, they will be feeling confident heading into tonight’s game with the same lineup. Dominique Ducharme seemed to confirm as much provided Josh Anderson is able to play after missing some of the last game with an injury.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on why the team held an optional morning skate today:
It’s a combination of the fact that our starts haven’t gone the way we’ve wanted them to here in the last little bit — so it’s not like we’re attached to what we’ve been doing here of late.
The other part of it — when you get to this point in the series, rest is so important. We have some guys who prefer not to skate in the mornings to save their energy, so it was just easy for us to do that today.
Keefe on the 550 healthcare and frontline workers attending the game tonight:
I think it’s terrific. Obviously, it’ll be nice to have a presence in the building tonight. In terms of the game, it’ll increase energy in the building. More than that, it’s another sign of progress for the country and our province and city specifically.
What a terrific way to recognize healthcare workers and frontline workers, who have given so much through this difficult time we’ve all been going through here. I think it’s wonderful.
Keefe on how much the hit tally has been a factor in this series:
I really don’t feel it’s been much of a factor. In terms of what you’re talking about, we’ve had some periods where we’ve outhit them, and I’d chalk those up to being some of our worst periods in the series.
Again, we’ve looked closely throughout the season [at] the hits and what’s marked as a hit. We want to invest physically in the series for sure and we need to continue to make that a priority, but I’m not following the hit count too closely.
Especially against this team — there are things going into this series that I was mindful of. From a hits perspective, they’re the number one team in the NHL and even from a shots and shot attempts perspective near the top of the league.
We’re not going to be focused on that. We’re going to be focused on our process, how to clean that up, and being really detailed to start the game. [We’re] focusing on the final scoreboard.
Keefe on how the Game 5 loss affected him personally:
When you come off of the loss the other night, it’s tough to come down from that. [It’s] tough to go through the recap of what had happened and how to prepare your team the next day. It’s tough to find time to get in the right frame of mind in order to get the appropriate rest and sleep. That’s all part of going through the playoffs, though.
I’ve coached in a number of Game 7s and elimination games throughout my career. In fact, this morning I was reminded that the year we won the Calder Cup with the Marlies, in the best-of-five first round, we were up 2-0 in the series and lost two to force a Game 5 on home ice in the first round. That was a pretty anxious time, but we found our way through that and found our way to the Calder Cup.
It’s just another reminder that these first rounds are just an absolute battle. From the time I arrived here this morning, I’ve really just been in a groove here in terms of preparing our team to play.
[I’m] just excited about preparing our team for what’s going to be a fun night. It’s an incredible opportunity for our team to meet this head-on and come out on the other side of it.
Dominique Ducharme on Josh Anderson, who missed part of the last game with an injury:
For right now, there’s always those little question marks, but we’re pretty confident we’ll go with the same lineup we had [on Saturday].
Ducharme on what has contributed to his team’s good starts in the last two games:
We’re dynamic, we’re moving, we’re on the puck, and we’re playing fast as a team. It doesn’t always mean it’s the skating part. The way we think [is important]. Obviously, we want to have a good start again tonight.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Alex Galchenyuk – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev –#47 Pierre Engvall – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#97 Joe Thornton – #71 Nick Foligno – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#23 Travis Dermott – #3 Justin Holl
#36 Rasmus Sandin – #22 Zach Bogosian
#36 Jack Campbell (starter)
#31 Frederik Andersen
Extras/Taxi: Adam Brooks, Rasmus Sandin, Riley Nash, David Rittich, Denis Malgin, Ben Hutton, Martin Marincin
Injured: John Tavares, Jake Muzzin
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines
#90 Tomas Tatar – #24 Phillip Danault – #11 Brendan Gallagher
#73 Tyler Toffoli – #14 Nick Suzuki – #22 Cole Caufield
#41 Paul Byron – #15 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #17 Josh Anderson*
#40 Joel Armia – #21 Eric Staal – #94 Corey Perry
#44 Joel Edmundson – #26 Jeff Petry
#8 Ben Chiarot – #6 Shea Weber
#32 Erik Gustafsson – #77 Brett Kulak
#31 Carey Price (starter)
#34 Jake Allen
Extras/Taxi: Cayden Primeau, Michael Frolik, Xavier Ouellet
Injured/Out: Jonathan Drouin, Jake Evans, Artturi Lehkonen, Jon Merrill