Coming off back-to-back come-from-behind OT wins in Tampa, the Maple Leafs once again have an opportunity to slay the first-round demon that has been haunting them for nearly two decades (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC/TBS).
The Maple Leafs will be hoping to replicate their start to Game 2 at home rather than the reactive tendency they’ve shown in most of the games in this series. Game 3 was somewhat of an exception given the Leafs held the upper hand on shots and chances for the first three minutes of the game before Tampa ended the first period with a 20-9 shot attempts advantage and a 10-6 advantage in shots.
Overall, Tampa has controlled shot attempts in the first period at a clip of 36-28, but that understates the flow of momentum and the overall results to start games. Outside of the Leafs‘ furious start on home ice in Game 2, they’ve been outscored 7-2 in the first period and have given up goals in the final 90 seconds of the opening period three times.
The Leafs will hopefully adjust and produce a tone-setting but disciplined start to the game in order to capitalize on the charged-up energy of their home crowd; as we’ve seen in past elimination games on home ice, this energy can quickly flip and create a tense atmosphere if the start goes south.
In addition to a faster start, the Leafs will be hoping for better efforts from two of the three Leafs’ defense pairs that have arguably played below expectations so far in this series. With Morgan Rielly thriving offensively and complemented relatively well by Luke Schenn, the other two pairs are handling most of the defensive-zone starts and tough matchups with mixed results.
Mark Giordano and Justin Holl, in particular, have both struggled to move the puck fast enough and prevent high-danger chances against. Keefe may need to protect them a little more with the last change on home ice (depending on their start tonight) in terms of their situational deployment and linemates. For example, Giordano and Holl have owned nearly half of the xGoals in their minutes away from Aston-Reese/Kampf/Lafferty but are under 30% in their minutes with the grinders.
Many were expecting more of a shakeup in the lineup tonight with Michael Bunting available again following his three-game suspension, but Bunting will remain out of the lineup tonight as Keefe bets on the momentum and discipline of the group that won three straight.
Many Leafs fans looked at Matthew Knies’ game in college and viewed him as a perfect future complement to the team’s top scorers and playmakers inside the top six, but it’s a little (pleasantly) surprising to see him working his way into such a role just six games into his NHL career.
Knies’ success in his puck battles on the forecheck, ability to protect the puck, and skill to make small-area plays have earned him more and more opportunities as the series has progressed. A major credit to how quickly he’s adapted to the league, he’ll start on a line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner in this close-out opportunity tonight.
That leaves William Nylander with Auston Matthews and Calle Jarnkrok. The Nylander and Matthews duo outscored the opposition by a massive 38-14 margin at five-on-five in the regular season but are down 2-1 in their minutes together in the playoffs so far, although the five-on-five sample is only 13 minutes long in the series to date.
Nylander is in the interesting position of tallying seven points in four games — including a series of clutch moments — despite recently being described by Keefe as needing to be more consistently engaged over the 60 minutes, with his ice time dipping as low as 14:21 over the 64 minutes of Game 4. Six of Nylander’s seven points have come in the second half of the game; four have come late in the third period or overtime. Hopefully, the Matthews-Nylander duo can find their rhythm from the puck drop tonight.
There aren’t any confirmed changes to the Lightning lineup tonight, but there was one interesting tidbit regarding rookie Michael Eyssimont:
#GoBolts Mikey Eyssimont came off the ice early at an optional morning skate — a possible indication he'll draw back in for Game 5.
— Kasey Hudson (@TheSportsKase) April 27, 2023
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on his team’s approach tonight:
I really think the biggest thing for us is just to go out and play a good hockey game. We’re a good team that’s won lots of games. We’ve found ways to win games in this series. Anytime we get outside of focusing on that is where all these other things start to creep in that don’t help us.
We have to be prepared to play our best game of the series. That’s really it.
Keefe on maintaining focus despite the pressure from the outside:
It’s a challenge [to stay present]. It’s something that you talk about, but you recognize it’s a natural thing, certainly, when they leave here. When we are here or talking amongst ourselves, we have to keep things really tight and really focused on what we need to do. That’s really all we can do in terms of controlling it ourselves.
Keefe on the areas for improvement through four games:
I think we need to be consistent throughout our game in terms of being connected from our zone to the neutral zone to the offensive zone.
Tampa does a terrific job of preventing that, and it’s on us to connect those areas of our game. I don’t think we’re far off from that really coming together. I thought the second and third periods the other night — and a little bit of overtime — had a lot of good things inside them.
Obviously, in the last game we played at home here, we did a lot of good things, so we’ve got enough there now that we know we need to do. We just have to execute it against a team that’s trying to do a lot of the same things.
Keefe on the number of low-danger chances that have turned into goals in this series:
Obviously, it’s a theme at this time of the year. You need to be able to get people in there, and Tampa’s made it very tough to get to their net. Both teams haven’t gotten a lot off the rush. There’s been a lot of those plays and goals around the net. Our guys have done a nice job of getting to those spots. Obviously, we want that to continue.
Jon Cooper on his team’s confidence heading into an elimination game:
The confidence level is that we’ve done it before. Last year, there were a lot of these types of games — Game 7 [in Toronto], 2-0 to the Rangers and we battled back, and then there was Game 5 in Colorado. We’ve had a lot to lean back on from a historical perspective but, it’s different here.
The core group has been through it. The staff has been through it. The goalie’s been through it. But it doesn’t change the fact of the matter that we can’t walk away [from tonight’s game], saying, “Hey we played well, but we lost.” Now, we’ve just got to get it done.
Cooper on the unique pressure the Maple Leafs are facing:
You can sit here the morning of the game and throw cliches out like, “Oh, they’ve never done it.” It’s a different team and different circumstances. It’s not the exact same opponent they faced last year.
When it comes into play is actually in the moment. When you’re in the moment when you’re down a goal or up a goal, do you start thinking in the back of your head, “Here we go again,” or those types of things? That’s when it has an effect.
Cooper on his team building off of the good things they’ve done in the series:
I look at [the series] and say, “We’ve had some tough lapses in games, and I think, for the most part, we’ve done a lot of what we wanted to do.”
I think we’ve scored enough goals. We’ve just given up too many, but if I was to look at the big picture of this and say, “We keep doing what we’re doing, but two percent better,” I think some of these “breaks” can go the other way.
Ryan O’Reilly on the adjustment on home ice tonight:
This is a game that we want to dictate a little bit more. In these last few, we’ve found ways to win — which is great — but we want to dig in and go at them a bit more and control the game.
John Tavares on Matthew Knies’ mindset and comfort under pressure:
I don’t think he seems overwhelmed, I think he’s just enjoying it. Sometimes in a situation like this — I think back to when I was twenty years old — being a bit naive is good.
Understanding the flow and the circumstances is not something you’ve experienced yet. [There’s not a lot of] analyzing and overthinking. You just kind of go out there and enjoy it.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#23 Matthew Knies – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #90 Ryan O’Reilly – #52 Noel Acciari
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #28 Sam Lafferty
#22 Jake McCabe – #78 TJ Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Luke Schenn
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll
Scratched: Michael Bunting, Wayne Simmonds, Timothy Liljegren, Erik Gustafsson Injured: Matt Murray, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
#91 Steven Stamkos – #21 Brayden Point – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#38 Brandon Hagel – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #17 Alex Killorn
#79 Ross Colton – #20 Nick Paul – #84 Tanner Jeannot
#14 Patrick Maroon – #41 Pierre-Édouard Bellemare – #10 Corey Perry
#77 Victor Hedman – #48 Nicklaus Perbix
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #43 Darren Raddysh
#28 Ian Cole – #24 Zach Bogosian
Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliott
Injured: Erik Cernak