All season the Toronto Maple Leafs waited for the end, to find out what was there. Sometimes they looked incredible. Sometimes they looked bored. Sometimes they looked like they were what they essentially are: a work in progress, with a sky-high ceiling and a humiliating floor.
Well, six days into this proto-playoff series the Leafs faced elimination in Game 4 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and they were down 3-0 with four minutes left. It looked like the humiliating floor was how it would go.
And then they pulled the goalie and got one, William Nylander on a rebound. They kept Frederik Andersen on the bench and got another, within a minute, John Tavares going top corner from the slot. They still had 3:08 left. It wasn’t over, somehow.
And with 23 seconds left, Auston Matthews found Zach Hyman and he snuck a puck between the pads of Elvis Merzlikins, and it was tied. All three goals were the production of the same talent overload lineup: Matthews, Tavares, Nylander, Nylander, Hyman, Morgan Rielly. The Leafs were staring into the chasm, and they looked like they didn’t have it. And then, somehow, they did.
And in overtime, with everyone throwing everything at the net, Columbus’s Nick Foligno took a tripping penalty, and it happened fast: Rielly to Marner to Tavares to Matthews, who stopped the clocks with 6:50 left. The Leafs won, 4-3. And this best-of-five series will be settled Sunday in Toronto.
The organization had wanted all year to see how this team would react to the real pressure: How do you stick together when you’re down, and how do you stay cool when you’re up? How do you play up to the moment? Great teams walk those lines. The Leafs hadn’t done it at all. And then they did, in the last four minutes they could.
And now they’re alive. It was stunning. It was unbelievable. It was probably what Boston fans felt like in 2013, when their players were sitting on the bench in the third period of Game 7 wondering who was going to get traded. From the time Toronto led 3-0 midway through Game 3, the Blue Jackets scored the next seven goals of the series. They scored on a two-on-one four minutes into Game 4 after a low-percentage Tavares shot came flying back out and Justin Holl was caught flat-footed. They had lots of time left. All night.
But the Leafs didn’t get going, and Merzlikins was superb. Columbus got a second goal almost five minutes into the second, on a Hyman turnover and a point shot that clipped Mitch Marner’s stick. That’s usually where a real team pushes, hard, together, season on the line. The Leafs have seen it in the playoffs before, from the other guys. Jason Spezza fought. That the 39-year-old felt he had to, in an elimination game, was an indictment.
The Leafs didn’t roll, they just … played, and some players tried a little too hard to be heroes. Rielly committed an awful turnover, with nobody to pass to, to give Columbus the third goal with 5:42 left. That looked to be it.
And then came the lightning bolts that come when talent and urgency are married together, and mostly it made you wonder why they waited so long.
But maybe that wasn’t a shock. All season this has been an uneven team. In December, they quit in Philly and goaltender Frederik Andersen said, “I think we’ve got to be more proud than that. Hopefully we can respond, and show what kind of character we have.” In February, Toronto got strafed in Pittsburgh and Tavares said, “I don’t know what else we need in front of us to motivate us.” In March, they got blanked in California and Matthews said, “I think we’re kind of, you know, one foot in the door, one foot out as far as the way we want to play. And I think we just all need to be 100 per cent in.” There were a lot of quotes like that, all year.
But this wasn’t a lack of motivation. This was a lack of the competitive steel that the great teams have. There’s a great team in there, maybe, probably, possibly. There is so much talent, and a system that does make sense. The analytics they used made sense. It’s not like they’re trying to go to the moon in a dune buggy. The Leafs play smart hockey.
“I think to develop mental toughness you need to go through experiences,” said Columbus coach John Tortorella before the game. “Do you fall in a fetal position or do you handle it head-on? Do you succeed, do you fail? All those things I think you learn through the experiences of it. It’s not from coaching; it’s from players experiencing certain situations. The mental part of the game, to me, far outweighs the X’s and O’s of the game right now. We do try to coach it quite a bit, a lot more than X’s and O’s. But then it falls on the players, how they handle it.”
“I think a lot of the work for situations like this doesn’t just come in to what you say or what you do today,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe before the game. “We’ve talked about mental toughness and the need to push through when things are difficult; we talked about that all throughout the pause, and really since day one of training camp. I think the work for that is done in advance, and we get a chance today to utilize it.”
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It amounted to nothing, until it didn’t. When you have enough talent maybe anything can happen, and a season of inconsistent habits can be saved because you finally put all that talent together, and the pucks went in.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have stared into the abyss, and they are alive. Game 5 is unwritten, and anything can happen. This team is still somewhere between the sky-high ceiling and the humiliating floor, with a chance remaining at either one.