A mere 10 days removed from the euphoria of the curse-breaking series victory over Tampa, the Maple Leafs shockingly find themselves in a do-or-die situation down 3-0 to Florida, with the trajectory of the franchise — the legacy of this core, coaching staff, and management group — potentially hanging in the balance in Game 4 tonight.

There isn’t an example to draw on of the Leafs digging themselves this deep of a playoff hole in the current era, but the way in which the team squandered an opportunity by losing several in a row to an inferior opponent (on paper) has partial parallels to the horror show against Montreal back in 2021.

The question is whether we see real signs of growth in this moment tonight. Do they come out and play as if the series is already lost — as they basically did in Game 7 against Montreal — or do they dig in and fight like hell to bring this series back to Toronto? Tonight’s effort is going to be hugely telling as to whether or not there is any reason at all to still believe that this core could one day show the wherewithal to win four rounds in the spring.

The reality is that tonight’s game isn’t determining whether a comeback is in the cards — it merely allows them to think like Lloyd Christmas and set the table for giving themselves a chance. If the Leafs successfully bring it back to home ice for Game 5 and stay alive in that game, suddenly, the pressure largely shifts to Florida after blowing two close-out opportunities and giving life to a more talented team. The Panthers’ coach and players have been playing the, “we’re just having fun here,” underdog card at every turn in the media, but even they would be feeling as though they have to win Game 6 in that scenario.

Tonight’s job is to win one game and get the series back to Toronto so they can even hope to embark on the daunting climb up the mountain.

In net for such a massive, potentially franchise-trajectory-altering game will be a man with a total of 11 NHL starts on his resume in Joseph Woll. Ilya Samsonov is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.

It brings to mind a pertinent Paul Maurice quote from the other day when the Florida head coach spoke about Sergei Bobrovsky’s excellence in this series so far:

You want one of two things [in net]. You want a veteran guy who has seen it all, who has some scars and can handle it, or a guy who has no idea where the hell he is because he doesn’t care. He is going to play for the next 18 years.

The Leafs actually have one of the former type available to them in Matt Murray, but he’s so injured all the time and short on game reps that he’s become a non-option. So tonight, with so much on the line, they turn to the rookie in hopes he can be immune to the magnitude of this moment and simply play with the demeanour he’s brought literally every time he’s started for the Leafs so far: calm, composed, and positionally sound.

As for the other lineup notes, Sheldon Keefe appears to be taking the route he’s often taken when the chips are down — leaving Auston Matthews with Mitch Marner (citing scoring chance numbers despite the lack of offense) and promoting Alex Kerfoot into his top six.

It’s easy to overanalyze it when so much of tonight is going to be determined by the stars’ refusal to die in both their effort and execution regardless of the line combinations. That said, it’s not exactly a refreshing approach from Keefe (his logic for it is in the quotes down below).

Bolder changes are expected on the blue line as the Leafs will move away from a shutdown pair that hasn’t been shutting down much of anything in this series (McCabe-Brodie). The pairing of Morgan Rielly – Luke Schenn remains intact while TJ Brodie will shift to the left side with Justin Holl (a pairing that has some familiarity together from the regular season), leaving Jake McCabe with Timothy Liljegren and Mark Giordano as the likely #7.

Okay, Leafs. This is it — and probably in more ways than just the series outcome. Win a friggin’ hockey game.

Keys to Game 4

via Anthony Petrielli

– The only thing the Leafs can do tonight is win one game (obviously). There is a lot of focus on the 0-3 hole, but there’s no use in talking about it. Win a game, get the series back to TO, and give yourself a chance.

– If Bobrovsky can see it right now, he’s saving it. Traffic is a must.

– The core has never been in this situation before where they’re in a huge hole with everyone writing their obituary mid-series. They’re getting buried alive. They should be using that as fuel. Show some pride.

– Florida is the faster team. The Leafs have to dictate the pace and slow the game down to a half-court offense.

– The Panthers’ forecheck has been well publicized, but this is the playoffs. There is a level of clutch and grab you can get away with in order to run interference. The Leafs need to stop letting the Panthers’ forecheckers wind up and run their defense for free.

– The Leafs’ defense needs to do a better job of getting pucks through by walking the line and finding holes.

– Ultimately, Sheldon Keefe has to roll with whoever is playing well. Want to start with 34-16? Fine, but if it isn’t working, pull the plug. The Leafs’ coaching staff needs to do a better job of identifying who is playing well and adjusting.

– The Panthers can be had. Their defense is leaky. The Leafs have to find a way to swing the series.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the mindset of the team entering a pressure-packed do-or-die situation:

I think the group is far from finished in terms of their approach and their mentality. They’re excited to get out and play to bring this thing back to Toronto.

Keefe on his logic for leaving Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner together while promoting Alex Kerfoot onto John Tavares’ line:

I have looked at it a lot. For good reason, there is a lot of focus on the last game in Game 3, but also, in Game 2, that line was quite dominant in a lot of ways and controlled a lot of the scoring chances. They had a lot of chances, as did Tavares and Nylander together.

You’re looking at big samples. You are looking at all of the different things that have happened throughout both the regular season and the playoffs. Our team has been the best — our lines have been the best — when it has been Matthews, Marner, and Jarnkrok. It is the best line we have had all season both in the regular season and playoffs.

Through the playoffs, we have looked at it, and there have been different things that we have used, but when Marner has gone down with Tavares, it usually gives Tavares a boost, but it hasn’t really been the case. It has been Nylander that has really been giving that group a boost.

I don’t see a reason to change it there. Kerfoot with Tavares and Nylander is as good as that line has been. We haven’t liked Bunting in that spot as much, but we like the energy he brought with O’Reilly.

It just puts the lines together well for us in terms of what I believe are the best lines we’ve used through these playoffs and in some cases, the bigger sample for those that have had it. You put your best group forward and let them play.

Keefe on why Matthews and Marner were so quiet in Game 3:

Any time you lose, everything gets magnified for good reason. That is the way it goes. We are in the winning business.

There is a combination of things. There are a number of shifts where we just couldn’t get out of our end. Some of the things had nothing to do with them; it is not them with the puck, it is others, and the play is not getting them on offense. Some of it is them not digging in, not winning battles, and not getting to the net. Some of it is that we didn’t get a power play, so it is harder for top people to really get going.

There are a lot of things that go into it, but it happens quickly in terms of how the narrative and things change. The production and the performance of these guys we are talking about and questioning now are the reason why we are here and playing when there are only eight teams left playing in the league.

In Game 2, those guys were dominant and had more chances in that one game than they had in the entire Tampa series combined. All of a sudden, in Game 3, it goes dry and you don’t get a big win at a key time. Now, you are questioning everything.

The emphasis and focus for me is to block out the noise and distractions, go out and compete, and leave it all out on the ice today.

Morgan Rielly on the difficulty of beating the odds from 0-3 down:

We are not really paying attention to the odds or the lines. Whenever you are in this position, you are a bit surprised.

Ultimately, if you look at the games and look at what we have done, we are here for a reason. We understand what we need to do to claw our way out of it.

It is not a position we would choose to be in, but we are here, we are fighting, and we not going to go down easy. There are a lot of other teams who aren’t playing right now who would do anything to be in our position.

We have to take advantage of that. We have to believe in one another and go out there, work, compete, and see what happens.

Mitch Marner on the team’s mindset:

We have had our backs against the walls in situations this year where we have come out on top. We will come in with the mindset of belief and knowing we can do it. We’ll take it one game at a time.

Marner on the pressure the team is facing and the criticism within the market:

We have been saying it this whole time. We don’t care what you guys say. We don’t listen to you guys outside of this locker room. We are just focused on ourselves and this group in here.

We don’t focus on outside noise. We don’t focus on anything on social media as I have been preaching all year long. Don’t listen to what the [media] is saying.

Marner on the pressure on the core players specifically to step up and deliver:

We are the leaders and we want to be the ones to step our foot forward and make sure we are doing that, but everyone wants to do that as well. We have a lot better to play, especially us.

Paul Maurice on his expectations for Game 4 with the Leafs’ backs against the wall:

Just a continuation of the first three. There are blocks in each game that each team has controlled.

When we look like we are controlling the game, our forecheck is pretty relentless. We are causing a lot of turnovers.

When they are controlling the game, their rush game comes in and they are three, four, and sometimes five at the line. The chaos they cause off the rush is really hard to handle.

We are going to try to create as many events as we can on the forecheck. We are going to do what we can to keep them out of their rush game. That is the tug-of-war here.

For the first five or six minutes of that game, we were able to stay out of the penalty box for the first time, and we gave up three two-on-ones. They scored a goal and hit a crossbar.

It is a nice idea for the coach to say it. It is a whole lot harder to handle.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#19 Calle Järnkrok – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#58 Michael Bunting – #90 Ryan O’Reilly – #52 Noel Acciari
#64 David Kämpf – #28 Sam Lafferty

#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Luke Schenn
#78 TJ Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#22 Jake McCabe – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#55 Mark Giordano

Starter: #60 Joseph Woll
#30 Matt Murray

Scratched: Zach Aston-Reese, Wayne Simmonds
Injured: Ilya Samsonov, Matthew Knies, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin

Florida Panthers Projected Lines

#23 Carter Verhaeghe – #16 Aleksander Barkov – #10 Anthony Duclair
#21 Nick Cousins  – #9 Sam Bennett – #19 Matthew Tkachuk
#27 Eetu Luostarinen – #15 Anton Lundell – #13 Sam Reinhart
#6 Colin White – #15 Eric Staal – #22 Zac Dalpe

#42 Gustav Forsling – #5 Aaron Ekblad
#18 Marc Staal – #62 Brandon Montour
#28 Josh Mahura – #7 Radko Gudas

#72 Sergei Bobrovsky
#34 Alex Lyon

Injured: Spencer Knight, Patric Hornqvist, Ryan Lomberg