With a few exceptions, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top players have looked dreadful and brilliant and everything in between. It’s why they find themselves facing a deciding Game 5 against the Blue Jackets and how those stars perform Sunday night will determine whether or not this team is for real.
Back in the second round of the 2002 playoffs, my then-colleague David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail wrote one of the all-time greatest leads by penning the following: “The Ottawa Senators have 48 hours to prove to everyone they’re not a bunch of choking dogs.” The Senators had failed to close out the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 6 of their series, then proved to be a gaggle of gagging canines by losing 3-0 to Toronto in the deciding game.
Which brings us to the most bizarre qualifying series of this year’s playoffs, featuring the Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets. In the space of less than 24 hours, each team took turns belching up three-goal leads and losing in overtime. With the deciding game going Sunday night, both the Leafs and Blue Jackets have about 48 hours to prove they’re not a bunch of choking dogs.
Had the Maple Leafs not come back with three goals in the last four minutes of regulation time, all of them with goalie Fredrik Andersen watching from the bench, it would have provided an interesting referendum on the way this Leafs team is built. And it still might. After all, none of this means anything for the Maple Leafs unless they can put the Blue Jackets away in Game 5 and move on to the first round of the playoffs. But instead of leaving us with no choice but to surmise that this is a team that is fundamentally flawed and won’t win anything as presently constructed, the Leafs’ core players gave us all something to think about, at least for another 48 hours.
The Maple Leafs are going to Game 5 of the qualifying round against Columbus solely because of their core players, from both a positive and negative perspective. There have been times when the Maple Leafs top-paid and best players have been dreadful. And there have been times, such as the final four minutes of regulation and overtime of Game 4, that they have been brilliant. The unlikely comeback after going down 3-0 was engineered, driven and executed by all this team’s most important players, the ones who have largely been procured and signed to long-term deals by the current management regime. Losing with a whimper in Game 4, something that looked like an eventuality for the vast majority of the game, would have forced the Leafs to do some serious soul searching and examination of how this roster is constructed. That still might happen, but for one night, the stars on this team made a compelling case for themselves. They were the ones who seized the narrative, took control of the game and made a difference.
Now they have to do it all over again Sunday night. And even if they’re successful against the Blue Jackets, anything short of at least one true series win will be considered an abject failure for this group. It’s all well and good that the Leafs got an inspired performance from their fourth line, but most big games, and Game 5 falls into that category, is usually decided by the performance of a team’s most vital players. Auston Matthews has been very, very good. Mitch Marner and John Tavares have straddled between being invisible/hurtful-to-the-cause and outstanding. Defenseman Morgan Rielly is sure to be on the ice for a lot of goals, both for and against. And who can even figure out Andersen at this point?
“It’s crazy the way that it worked out,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “We’ve got new life here now. We were getting CPR there for a little bit and we found our way back and here we go.”
There is clearly more on the line for the Maple Leafs in this series than the Blue Jackets. After all, this is a team that lost its No. 1 goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky, its top scorer in Artemi Panarin and its prized trade deadline acquisition in Matt Duchene and finds itself still playing meaningful games. Already playing without defenseman Ryan Murray, the Blue Jackets lost their best blueliner in Zach Werenski with 10 minutes left in regulation. We don’t know yet what his status is, but the Blue Jackets are definitely more hampered without Murray and Werenski than the Maple Leafs are without Jake Muzzin.
Game 5, as it has been throughout this series, will be a battle of skill against will. If the team with more skill shows the same kind of will it did late in Game 4, you have to like its chances. If not, the Maple Leafs will have simply held off the second-guessing and questions for another 48 hours. And they will have proven they are a bunch of choking dogs.
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