The Toronto Maple Leafs had to collect themselves twice in about 24 hours. First, after Thursday’s loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, they had to try to pull themselves together to get ready for Game 4.
Then, when that didn’t work, and they fell behind 3-0 with about five minutes left in the third period of Game 4, they had to collect themselves again. A miracle of miracles, this time it worked, and the core of well-paid Maple Leafs stars found a way to win a game no one expected them to win.
How Incredible Was this Rally?
The Maple Leafs rallied from three goals down with just over three minutes left in the third period. First, an almost expressionless William Nylander trickled goal one through Elvis Merzlikins’ legs with 3:57 left. Second, John Tavares converted a seeing-eye goal after a great pass from Auston Matthews less than a minute later. Third, with everyone – including Zach Hyman – thinking Matthews would shoot, he fed Hyman who fired goal three from the top of the left circle to tie the game with only 23 seconds left.
Frederik Andersen, who had made 36 saves on 39 shots was watching all this from the bench.
In overtime, Morgan Rielly held the puck in the Blue Jackets’ zone, passed to Mitch Marner, who passed it to Tavares, who passed it to Matthews skating towards the net, who finally shot. The result was an overtime power-play goal at 13:10.
Talk about payback. By the same 4-3 score, the Blue Jackets won Thursday night, the Maple Leafs won on Friday. The best-of-five qualifying series is now tied at two wins apiece.
Item One: Auston Matthews Is Becoming “The” Guy
The 2019-20 NHL season couldn’t have started worse for Matthews. He had legal troubles in Arizona, which included hiding them from his employer, which might have cost him the captaincy. However, as the season picked up, so did he. He was in a race for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer when the regular season was suspended as a result of COVID-19. During his time in Arizona quarantining, and at the beginning of Phase 2, he tested positive for the virus.
However, something is happening both on and off the ice that might mean he is maturing; or, perhaps he’s also wisely listening to advice from the organization. His off-ice behaviour has been almost stellar. When interviewed, he answers questions fully; he displays a tasteful sense of humour; and, he appreciates his teammates publically.
Recently, when he faced a question from Steve Simmons, the Maple Leafs writer who broke the news of Matthews’ positive test, he critiqued Simmons and spoke his piece without drama or unnecessary confrontation.
On the ice, he’s becoming a better player; actually, a really good player. Despite being hounded consistently by the Blue Jackets’ best defensive schemes, he’s produced. Last night’s comeback was in part because his opponents simply don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s more than a one-dimensional shooter – goal two and goal three resulted from his wise decisions to assist rather than shoot.
Matthews also doesn’t lose his cool or hang his head. Even when his team was behind 3-0 late, he noted, ”I think once we got one pretty quickly there, we just want to keep pushing and keep pressing, we got two and obviously there was time left, we’ve still got a game. So we just kind of rallied everybody, got everybody excited to give us a little bit of an extra boost.”
That’s leadership, and Matthews seems to be growing into it. Regardless of the team’s fate, Matthews’ development is a positive sign for the future. He’s just a kid, really; and, he’s becoming the Maple Leafs’ next leader.
Item Two: Sheldon Keefe’s Tale of 2 Games
When the Maple Leafs lost Game 3 after leading 3-0, head coach Sheldon Keefe’s game assessment was, “We got what we deserved.”
Even when the team went ahead 3-0 on Nick Robertson’s first NHL goal, Keefe wasn’t happy with the Leafs’ play. Things seemed to be going well, but he saw problems.
He noted, “I feel like the game got away from us in the first period. I didn’t like it at 1-0, 2-0, 3-0. There was no real purpose or plan to our game, just making it up as we go along. We were back to a lot of really bad habits,” (from “Leafs on brink of elimination after blowing three-goal lead in Game 3 OT loss, Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun, 07/08/20).
What a difference a game makes. Although his team was behind 3-0 with only a few minutes remaining in the third period, he said: “You know what? I think we played a good game today. Obviously, we don’t like how we got behind early … so it was a tough road for us today. But our guys played really hard. It wasn’t perfect, but our guys played with heart and it was nice to see them get rewarded,” (from “The Leafs were down three with four minutes to go, facing elimination. And then came the lightning bolts,” Bruce Arthur, The Star, 07/08/20).
All that was lost on me.
Item Three: Jason Spezza, Who Couldn’t Figure Out Penalty Killing, Helps Lead His Team
Sportsnet’s Luke Fox, who consistently writes great columns, wrote an especially nice one last night about Jason Spezza. He spoke about Spezza’s four daughters under age 10 – Sophia, Nicola, Anna, and Julia – whose dad left them at home to enter the NHL bubble because “They know Daddy’s got a dream. Trying to win a Stanley Cup as a Maple Leaf is something I dreamed of as a kid.”
His family knows that this crazy COVID-19 season might be his last chance to realize that dream, and they also understand his desire to win. What were they doing during his fight? It was only Spezza’s seventh fight in 1,207 NHL games. However, after watching his Maple Leafs give up six unanswered goals, he had to try to inject some life into his team.
Spezza admitted he was, “Just trying to spark the guys. Just trying to show some desperation and have some pushback. Without the crowd, you don’t have that. Just trying to create some emotion and play the role that I’m in. Trying to get everyone going.”
His teammates, who have nicknamed him “Vintage,” appreciated his work and offered him a round of stick slaps from the bench. They too get it: the ageing fourth-liner without job security for next season wants to win.
This season, two different coaches have “appreciated” him differently. As Maple Leafs fans recall, his first 2019-20 head coach, Mike Babcock, made him a healthy scratch during the first game of the season against his old Ottawa Senators team, with whom he played and starred for many seasons. Babcock’s reason was that Spezza hadn’t worked out the deficiencies in his penalty killing. Spezza’s first game as a Maple Leaf was against these same Blue Jackets in October.
After last night’s game, without prompting, his second 2019-20 head coach said of his warrior: “Jason Spezza just did not want our season to end today. He played with that level of urgency. You see the fight. That’s playoff hockey.”
Keefe added, “That’s a guy not wanting to go down — literally — without a fight.”
Spezza’s tenacity helped spur his team’s three-goal comeback. That the 37-year-old Spezza felt he had to contribute by fighting suggests something about his character. But, Keefe also utilized Spezza’s fourth line with Kyle Clifford and Pierre Engvall and they worked hard every chance they had.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Keefe noted, “We were getting CPR there for a little bit, and we found our way back. Here we go.”
Both teams meet again on Sunday evening, with the winner moving into the playoffs and the loser drawing for the first overall draft pick. There’s little more to say about this series. It’s been evenly matched, and both teams are down a great defenseman.
Here we go.