Sheldon Keefe seemed miffed that he was even having the conversation.
And to be fair, it’s not unreasonable to suggest Keefe and the Maple Leafs should have spent Friday preparing for the Winnipeg Jets in Round 2 instead of flying to Montreal for Saturday’s Game 6. If they had taken care of proverbial business, if they’d put in a more professional performance in the biggest game of the season to date, they could have easily finished off the Canadiens in Thursday’s Game 5. Toronto is clearly the better team with superior high-end players and a deeper roster. Montreal, beyond the confines of Carey Price’s crease, is a hard-playing squad built like a patchwork shambles.
Still, as Game 5 underlined, there’s clearly a way the Leafs can lose this series: They can beat themselves. There’s clearly a way they can lose Saturday’s Game 6 in front of 2,500 fans at the Bell Centre and necessitate a Game 7 back in Toronto. They can give another game away, in the way Rasmus Sandin and Alex Galchenyuk essentially handed Montreal the golden Game 5 opportunities that brought us here.
“We gifted them offence,” Keefe said Friday, lamenting his team’s latest head-shaking step in the wrong direction.
Said Leafs veteran Jason Spezza: “Most of the offence they’ve gotten throughout the series has been stuff that we’ve given them.”
So the adjustment is easy enough. Cease with the brain cramps. Swap Sandin for the more experienced and defensively responsible Travis Dermott, who was essentially flawless in his only appearance of the series. Reinsert defence-first centre Riley Nash. And, injury status willing, welcome back Nick Foligno . If all that means you lose a little bit of offensive potential around the fringes, perhaps it wouldn’t be asking too much for the roster’s core to make up the difference.
Five games into the playoffs, after all, Auston Matthews has still scored a grand total of one goal. Heading into Friday’s slate of post-season action, there were 62 NHL players who had already scored at least two. As for linemate Mitch Marner: If you saw his gaze raised to the heavens in visible frustration on Thursday night, it’s at least partly because he was in the midst of his 16th straight playoff game without a goal.
Given how Matthews looked particularly unenergetic Thursday, when he registered a series-low two shots on goal, it was fair to wonder: Is the pressure of delivering Toronto’s first playoff-series victory in 17 years beginning to wear on Toronto’s first-liners?
“They’re great players. They’re the best in the game for a reason … I’m willing to say they have daily pressure on themselves, whether it’s regular season or playoffs, to perform,” Spezza said. “And they want to perform. But hockey’s truly a team sport. From the bottom of the lineup, we have to help those guys. We can’t be on for goals against. We have to give them an opportunity to win games, and they’ll do the rest because they’re elite players.”
Fair enough. It’s a team game. And Matthews and Marner, as has been noted in this space, are playing well on a lot of important levels. They’ve logged more ice time than anyone other than Morgan Rielly. They’ve taken the best Montreal can throw at them — and mostly it’s been the line centred by Phillip Danault alongside Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar — and mostly dominated the puck. They’ve outshot the Danault line 15-11 at even strength. And while they’re not scoring at their usual rates, Keefe said it was crucial to note that, while they’re playing against Montreal’s best line, they have yet to be on the ice for a goal against.
“If you score five or six goals but you give up five or six goals, well then you haven’t really helped the team,” Keefe said. “These guys haven’t given up anything despite playing the most minutes, despite spending a lot of time against really good players, really good matchups, despite having to take faceoffs in their own end, which a lot of top lines don’t necessarily do.”
Which was a veiled way of saying: For all those clamouring for more ice time for William Nylander, who leads the Maple Leafs with four goals, consider that Nylander, while he’s been on the ice for five Toronto goals at 5-on-5, he’s also been on the ice for five Montreal goals at 5-on-5.
That’s not wholly Nylander’s fault. He’s been dealt the blow of losing linemates John Tavares and Foligno to injury. But that’s been a burden heaped on Matthews and Marner, too. Keefe pointed out that, with Tavares and Foligno out, it’s been “a lot easier” for the opposition to focus on the Matthews line.
“When you’re the top guys, you get checked tighter,” Spezza said. “And it’s important that they just keep plugging along. When you’re that good, the puck goes in for you and you’ll make an impact in games … They’ve been great. They’ve been really good players for us. They’ve controlled play at all times. “
Still, they’re paid like they’re paid, ultimately, because they’re rare thoroughbreds, not rank workhorses. Star players, from Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon to Carolina’s Sebastian Aho to Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, have been delivering big performances under the weight of considerable expectations. Which speaks to a growing Toronto trend that’s best nipped in the bud. Thursday’s loss, after all, dropped the Leafs’ win-loss record to 0-5 in potential series-clinching games during the Matthews-Marner era. In those five games, Marner has zero goals and two assists. Matthews has one goal and one assist.
Two measly points apiece in five big games. During this past regular season, Matthews won the Rocket Richard Trophy by scoring at a rate of nearly four goals in five games. Let’s just say the regular-season numbers would come to mean more if they were backed with a timely playoff performance to carry this team over a long-lamented hump.
For all that, Keefe said he had faith that better bottom-line production from Toronto’s top-line players is in the offing. Matthews leads the series in scoring chances with 28, according to Sportlogiq. Marner is second with 18. Nobody else on either team has more than 16.
“If they keep getting those chances, I think they’re going to fall in,” Keefe said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
The time, clearly, is now.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk