After a potentially series-turning comeback win in Toronto, the Maple Leafs now face the final and steepest hurdle of the series as they return to Tampa looking to deliver a knockout blow to the back-to-back champs and punch their ticket to the second round for the first time since 2004 (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet & CBC).

With the series trending in a dark direction through the first period of Game 5, a tremendous push in the latter half of the game allowed Toronto to turn the tide, stop the bleeding at 2-0, and complete a remarkable comeback to win the game. The Leafs‘ reward is the opportunity to pass the most difficult test of the series at Amalie Arena tonight: eliminate the Lightning with their first back-to-back playoff defeats since 2019, while simultaneously capturing their first playoff series victory since they defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games in 2003-04.

While Game 5 continued to feature ample special-teams time, the Leafs‘ push from the second period on meant they finished with their best showing of the series at five-on-five. Two of the last three games have had over 42 minutes of five-on-five play, which is still far below the regular-season average, but it is above what we saw in the first two games of the series.

All in all, the Leafs finished with over two xGoals at five-on-five, which is their best tally of the series so far. Against a desperate Tampa team that specializes in responding with its back against the wall, a similar (but more complete over 60 minutes) effort at five-on-five will be necessary to finish the job on the road in Game 6.

After earning a key power-play goal and a four-on-four assist on Tuesday, John Tavares will be looking to build on the momentum and translate it over into production at five-on-five as this series reaches its late stages. Six Leafs players recorded more than .20 individual expected goals (all situations) in Game 5, but Tavares was not one of them. In fact, he was the only forward on the team outside of Ondrej Kase not to have a shot attempt at five-on-five.

Another player who manufactured a huge moment at four-on-four in Game 5 but will be looking for a more complete 60-minute effort tonight is Morgan Rielly. Sheldon Keefe and Spencer Carbery made an interesting change to the power play in Game 5 by flipping Rielly and Mark Giordano which moved the veteran onto the Leafs‘ first unit for the latter part of the game.

Giordano’s experience, simple but effective puck movement, and ability to get pucks to the net give the Leafs a useful element in the offensive zone, but it remains to be seen if the coaching staff feels comfortable enough to stick with it tonight. Rielly had two blocked point shots in the first period, both leading to odd-man rushes against.

Outside of that possible change, the Leafs will likely look very similar to how they started Game 5. As he’s done in every game thus far, Keefe has used the Engvall-Kampf-Mikheyev combination plenty both when leading and when trailing. In the last game, it was the same, although this time it was more a byproduct of trying to get John Tavares and William Nylander time together on a secondary scoring line while the team moved to a three-line approach in pursuit of the comeback. Tonight, it looks like Nylander and Tavares will start apart once again, but we know Keefe has plenty of options he’ll turn to situationally.

With their line losing the battle against the Leafs’ top trio last game, Jon Cooper moved Steven Stamkos down a line and replaced him with Brayden Point on the Lightning’s top scoring line. Chances are Cooper returns to his original lines tonight given he has more control over the matchups at home. Despite only having two points in the series, both on the power play, Brayden Point has continued to be one of Tampa’s best play drivers. The matchup against Matthews’ line will again be a critical factor in the game — in particular, whether Matthews continues to take over at 5v5 as he did on Tuesday, or if the Lightning can return to the success they were enjoying at home with Cirelli-Point-Killorn matched up against the Leafs’ top line.

Series Stats via Evolving-Hockey

  • Victor Hedman leads the series in on-ice xGoals% and xGoalsFor/60 at five-on-five.
  • The top seven players in the series in terms of five-on-five shot attempt share are all Tampa Bay players: Killorn, Point, Hagel, Cirelli, Hedman, Colton, and Cernak.
  • The worst xGoalsAgainst/60 rating in the series belongs to Nikita Kucherov.
  • Iyla Lyubushkin, averaging 12:30 of five-on-five ice time, is dead last of any player in the series in xG% and around 8% worse than the next worst defenseman.
  • John Tavares and Anthony Cirelli are the only players in the series whose teams have not registered a goal at five-on-five in their minutes.
  • Point, Kucherov, and Stamkos lead the series in xGF/60 on the power play.
  • Auston Matthews has by far the most ShotAttempts/60 of any player in the series.
  • Corey Perry leads the series in individual xGoals/60. Ilya Mikheyev is second.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the mood of his team entering an elimination game:

I think the guys are fine. I think, if there’s anything we’ve learned along the way, it’s that you can’t get too focused on the fact that it’s an elimination game or anything like that. All these things go without saying. You know what you’re playing in.

You have to focus on the things you’ve done well in this series. You have to focus on continuing to get better in the series. Focus on your game. Just go out and play.

Keefe on how the team is preparing itself for the toughest challenge of the series:

Like I said, I think a big part of it is to not take the focus away from our game and focus on the details. We had a meeting this morning showing things that we need to do better and showing things that we have done well that have given us success in the series.

That’s really where the focus has to lie. Knowing that you’re in tough against your opponent and you’re on the road, those kinds of things are important.

We’ve been here. We’ve played this team in this building. We know what to expect in that sense. Really, we’re just focused on playing our best game of the series. We feel like that’s what it’s going to take.

We’ve been continuing to work towards that. We’ve been working things out and making little adjustments along the way. Now we have to go out and play.

Keefe on the announcement of Auston Matthews’ Hart Trophy nomination:

We’ve spoken about it a lot and for good reason — he’s been such a significant contributor in so many areas for our team. The other part is it’s been so consistent — the goal scoring has been consistent at a pace higher than anyone else; the five-on-five scoring, in particular, which is the hardest thing to do in our sport. He does that at a rate that nobody in the game has been able to keep up with in the last few years.

Then [there’s] the intangibles of his game, too. He plays so many minutes for us and still plays hard and plays well defensively. With all of the different things he does for us, it’s tremendous for him to have that honour and tremendous for the Leafs.

It’s been a long time since a player was honoured like that [in Toronto]. Obviously, when the news comes at this point, there’s other things on everybody’s mind, but it is a well-deserved recognition.

Keefe on his team’s power play and how special teams have affected the series:

We need to execute and get more things happening around the net and to the net. You look at the first period, and we weren’t getting anything free or any real good looks on net even though we were in the zone a good amount of time. That in itself is a big challenge against this team, so we were able to [overcome that].

Getting clean looks has been a challenge, but at the same time, we’ve found a way to score pretty consistently. You’re getting one power-play goal a game. Uou’ll take that. When we get power plays early in games, we’d like to strike and see it build momentum for us.

I think in the first period we had [last game], the shots and stuff like that get overblown a little bit because of the special teams. Their power play outshot ours 8-0. The shots at even strength were 6-4. When you look at that, the period doesn’t look as bad at five-on-five.

When the power play isn’t going, it tends to draw attention to every area, and you feel like your whole game is not there. You really have to focus on your five-on-five play and knowing that the power play is something that can build positive momentum for the team.

Keefe on Morgan Rielly and Mark Giordano switching power-play units in Game 5:

With [Giordano’s] shot, he’s a little more willing and programmed to direct the puck at the net. With Morgan, all season, he’s been more of a distributor at the top there. [We made the change] with that in mind.

Keefe on what Matthews and Marner need to do tonight to have success:

I think if they play the way they did the other night, that’ll take them a long way. Auston, in particular, [playing] 200 feet of the ice and winning pucks back goes a long way.

Their play on the road here hasn’t gone as well. I think it’s a reflection of how the games have gone. As a team, we haven’t been able to carry play very well here, so it’s been tough to get favourable matchups.

It’s also hard to get favourable shifts. We’ve been on our heels a lot in this building. That’s an area where, as a team, if we can get on our toes and really establish our game and carry forward what we did in Game 5, that will help all of our players.

Jon Cooper on his group’s mindset with their backs against the wall:

In times like these, I think I’ve learned with this group that we’re kind of all in this together. There’s no special buttons I need to push to get them to go. This hasn’t been an effort series for us. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face: When we’ve made mistakes, the Leafs have made us pay. Good on them for doing that.

I just think if we take that out of our game or we limit a little bit of the self-destruction, we’ll give ourselves a good chance to win. I can’t guarantee we’re going to win, but we’re going to show up tonight, I can tell you that.

Cooper on dealing with a more physical Auston Matthews in Game 5:

He’s an elite player in this league. They’ve got some elite players and so do we. He’s thrown his weight around and he’s a big body. It really doesn’t have too much of an effect on us. Our job is to keep him off the scoreboard — sometimes we have, and sometimes we haven’t.

Clearly, he had a big goal for them. That’s bad on us to give up a 2-on-2 to arguably their two best players with six minutes to go. Again, that’s on us. It takes great players to finish. He finished, but Auston throwing his weight around doesn’t have any bearing on us.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#56 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares  – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#47 Pierre Engvall – #64 David Kampf – #88 William Nylander
#25 Ondrej Kase – #11 Colin Blackwell – #19 Jason Spezza

#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#8 Jake Muzzin – #78 T.J. Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl

Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren

Healthy Scratches: Wayne Simmonds, Timothy Liljegren, Nick Abruzzese, Kyle Clifford, Rasmus Sandin
Injured: Petr Mrazek

Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines

#18 Ondrej Palat – #91 Steven Stamkos – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#17 Alex Killorn – #21 Brayden Point – #71 Anthony Cirelli
#38 Brandon Hagel – #79 Ross Colton – #20 Nick Paul
#14 Patrick Maroon – #41 Pierre-Edouard Bellmare – #10 Corey Perry

#77 Victor Hedman – #81 Erik Cernak
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #24 Zach Bogosian
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #52 Cal Foote

Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliot

Healthy Scratches: Riley Nash, Jan Rutta
Injured: None