I wonder how many writers who covered Game 4 of the Columbus Blue Jackets versus Toronto Maple Leafs play-in series had started writing an article about the Maple Leafs blowing it yet again. Had the game played out as it seemed destined to, the Maple Leafs would have become the fifth team eliminated on a single day. I certainly saw a number of tweets popping up that signaled that the ‘Maple Leafs Season Ends in Disappointment’ or “Blue Jackets Goaltending Proves to Be Too Strong For Leafs.”
It didn’t happen that way. And somehow karma intervened to give the organization another chance. There’s a game yet to win, but the wind seems to be back in the sails of the good ship Maple Leafs – at least until later this evening.
From anyone’s perspective, this has been a really exciting and dramatic best-of-five series. It’s been filled with hissy fits between players and coaches, incredible comebacks, an 18-year-old’s first NHL goal, and on and on.
I had to look it up, but the last time the NHL used a best-of-five format was in 1986, when the No. 1 single of the year was “That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne and Friends (which included Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder). Is it just a rumor or is that Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella’s and center Pierre-Luc Dubois’ favorite song?
This series will be finalized this evening with the winner moving to the Stanley Cup playoffs and the loser hoping to draw the first pick in the upcoming Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes. In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll look at some of the players that made Game 5 possible for the Maple Leafs.
Item One: Fortunately Zach Hyman Was Watching for Auston Matthews’ Surprise
Although Zach Hyman scored the game-tying goal to force overtime, one of the great Maple Leafs storylines for me during this postseason has been the growth of Auston Matthews as a player. And it isn’t just that he fired home the overtime winner in Game 4. In fact, it’s because he’s been under the best defensive pressure the Blue Jackets can muster and he’s still delivered. He’s also surprisingly creative on the ice.
One reason Matthews has delivered is that he works hard and simply doesn’t seem to give up. Another reason is that his offense hasn’t been predictable. In fact, Hyman admitted – just like everyone else – that he expected Matthews to shoot. Instead, Matthews fed a perfectly-considered pass to Hyman (who kicked it off his skate from what I saw), who slid home the game-tying goal.
Hyman’s goal came on his fifth shot of the game and he also scored an assist during Friday’s 4-3 overtime win. His goal capped an amazing three-goal comeback that took just 3:34 of the third period. The 28-year-old Hyman has three points, 12 shots, and nine hits in the four games of the series so far.
Really, what a surprise. The Maple Leafs had been absolutely stymied by Elvis Merzlikins great goaltending and trailed 3-0 in the game. As unfortunate as the comeback was for Merzlikins personally, he had a great game, saving 49 of 53 shots the Maple Leafs threw at him.
Item Two: John Tavares’ Determined Leadership Obvious Throughout this Series
John Tavares scored two points in Game 4’s overtime victory with a goal and a power-play assist. His perfectly-placed shot cut the Blue Jackets lead to a single goal and fuelled a belief that a comeback was possible. In the overtime, Tavares set up Matthews beautifully for the game-winner.
The 29-year-old Tavares now has three points and 19 shots in four games. I’m sure some Maple Leafs fans believe that the captain and star center must be more consistent. But, what I’ve seen suggests that Tavares has a knack of scoring just when the team needs him to. His Game 2 breakaway goal broke the Blue Jackets spirit and Friday’s overtime assist, obviously, helped win Game 4.
Item Three: William Nylander: Seemingly Stoic Swede Started the Scoring
(Sorry, I couldn’t resist the tongue-twister). Former teammate Connor Brown (who now plays for the Ottawa Senators) did William Nylander a huge service this season when he spoke about the enigmatic Nylander during a podcast with current New Jersey Devils’ defenseman Connor Carrick in mid-June.
Brown, without prompting, said about Nylander: “He’s the probably the most laid-back guy I’ve ever met in my entire life. But have you ever seen a guy on the ice more than him in your life? Right? I mean, he’s on the ice 25 minutes before practice, stick-handling through pucks lined up.”
That often-cited line has offered Nylander more space to be understood by Maple Leafs fans because it demonstrates that Nylander is both hard-working and does, in fact, care. Sometimes those two things can be difficult to read with this young player.
So, when Nylander scored the goal that started the entire comeback against the Blue Jackets, fans – at least I don’t – read what seems like a lack of emotion as not caring. In fact, it might just be an expression of Nylander’s calmness under pressure. Over this series, Nylander has been a point-per-game player with four points in four games.
Item Four: Mitch Marner Finally Hits the Scoresheet with 3 Assists
When it counted, Mitch Marner came through with three assists to help spark the Game 4 comeback. He also had eight shots in the game. Marner assisted on the Maple Leafs’ first two goals, both scored within a minute. His final assist was a perfect pass to Tavares, who slid another perfect pass so that a charging Matthews could deposit his game-winning goal.
As a Maple Leafs fan, you have to hope this burst is the beginning of Marner starting to play more like Marner, which he hasn’t seemed to be doing. He had been held to a single assist and only six shots during the first three games of the series.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
All Maple Leafs fans know the answer to this question. Tonight will be a season-defining evening for the team if they lose and might be a season-defining game if they win. Given Game 4’s conclusion, the team should begin the game with some confidence. But, the Blue Jackets should begin the game with some fire as well.
One thing’s for certain, even if one team is trailing by a couple of goals with three minutes left, few fans will leave their televisions.