The Toronto Maple Leafs are just one game away from slaying a dragon and reaching the second round of the NHL playoffs. They will have up to two chances to make it happen with Saturday night’s Game 6 and then a potential Game 7 should it be necessary.
But if we learned anything from Game 5, it’s that this series is far from over. Despite taking a 1-0 lead early, the Maple Leafs were outscored by the Lightning 4-1 the rest of the way. Except for that flurry at the end, the Lightning were the much better team.
Saturday is a new day and Game 6 is a new game. The Maple Leafs still have a prime opportunity to advance. However if they want to do that, Sheldon Keefe must outcoach Jon Cooper the rest of the way. That won’t be an easy task.
Critical Lineup Decisions
It starts with icing the best possible roster to give the Maple Leafs their best chance to win. Our Shane Seney did a nice job outlining the changes they should make in advance of Game 6.
The first is with defenseman Justin Holl. While he’s had several good moments over the course of the season, he’s been caught out of position a lot. The result is a staggering 14-2 advantage in goals for the Lightning with Holl on the ice in the series.
Considering that Holl has been on the ice for 70% of the Lightning’s goals in the series, it points to two things. Keefe has continued to believe in Holl despite the numbers. And Cooper has exposed this weakness to the Lightning’s advantage.
Here’s Keefe after Game 5 talking about Holl: “I would ask if he’s out there by himself when he gets scored on. The answer to that would be no.”
Keefe clearly indicates that this is a team issue and not just on one player. While that is fair to a point, it’s plainly clear Holl is being dominated while on the ice.
A good coach like Cooper is going to continue to expose this matchup as long as it remains available to him. Since he and the Lightning get last change at home, it’s a no brainer to continue attacking the weakness should Holl play on Saturday.
The other decision is what to do with Michael Bunting. It seems likely he will play in Game 6. But who comes out. Zach Aston-Reese? Sam Lafferty? A surprise? Then what will the lines look like?
The bottom-six was also not good in Game 5. Both Aston-Reese and Lafferty played less than seven minutes. Against a Lightning team in which their bottom-six can bite you, Keefe has to find a way to properly deploy a usable bottom-six.
Keefe Must Reverse This Trend
The truth is outside of Game 2 and then short bursts within some of the games, the Lightning have been the better team despite trailing in the series. The Maple Leafs are quite fortunate to be ahead with multiple chances to advance.
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They took advantage of a less than great Andrei Vasilevskiy to build a 3-1 lead. Morgan Rielly has had the series of his life. Mitch Marner is producing. Auston Matthews is contributing too. It’s been good enough to build a lead. It hasn’t been good enough to advance yet.
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This is where Keefe must shine. The head coach must put the Maple Leafs in the best possible position to win. He must have an answer on the fly to everything Cooper and the Lightning are trying to do.
Keefe also has to find a way to keep everything even keeled especially if things get out of hand. With so much pressure on the line, he has to be the calming influence on the bench.
Cooper has had his way with Keefe so far in the series. He’s taken Keefe’s lunch and his lunch money to boot. If the Maple Leafs want to finally celebrate something almost 20 years in the making, he must reverse the trend against Cooper and outcoach him. That starts with the correct lineup decisions.
Will the Maple Leafs finally slay the dragon of past first-round playoff failures? Regardless of the result, it will be because of Keefe and his decision-making, for better or worse. The Maple Leafs hopes of advancing do rest with him.
Sheldon Keefe, the floor is yours.