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For Leafs to win Friday night and stay alive, mental approach will have to be the guide

Toronto Maple Leafs' head coach Sheldon Keefe instructs the team on the next drill during the second day training camp in Toronto on Tuesday, July 14.
Toronto Maple Leafs' head coach Sheldon Keefe instructs the team on the next drill during the second day training camp in Toronto on Tuesday, July 14.

John Tortorella had some pertinent questions on Friday morning.

It’s on the shoulders of the Maple Leafs to respond correctly, and if not, bubble life will end on Friday night and the Leafs can start their summer vacation.

Tortorella, the coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, was asked where the mental toughness of a hockey team might have its roots.

“You need to go through experiences,” Tortorella said. “Do you fall in (a) fetal position or do you handle it head on? Do you succeed, do you fail? All those things, I think you learn through the experiences of it. It’s not from coaching, it’s from players experiencing certain situations.

“The mental part of the game, to me, far outweighs the Xs and Os of the game right now. We do try to coach it quite a bit, a lot more than Xs and Os, but then it falls on the players, how they handle it.”

The Leafs haven’t handled it well in the past, having bowed out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round in each the past three years.

One of these days, the Leafs will grasp mental toughness, right? Or is that too much to assume?

There’s no telling which Leafs team might take the ice on Friday night, facing elimination in Game 4 of the qualifying round against the Blue Jackets at Scotiabank Arena.

After dominating in Game 2 in a shutout win, the Leafs weren’t great in Game 3 on Thursday night and then fell apart completely, blowing a 3-0 lead to lose 4-3 in overtime.

Remember, this is a Leafs team that general manager Kyle Dubas back in February partly described as having a “Jekyll and Hyde” identity. The hope inside the organization was that the club had grown and had matured during the pause, but the difference in the level of play in Games 2 and 3 suggests otherwise.

“We just need to get back to what we were doing in Games 1 and 2,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “That’s why I was so disappointed (in Game 3).

“We talk about the purpose and the plan of how we play, that’s what we’ve been talking about since Day 1 of camp and I thought we did a really good job of that in both Games 1 and 2. One goal against in those two games really sets us up for success and I thought there was a departure from that (in Game 3), and that’s why I didn’t feel good about it, right from the start in terms of how we were playing.

“Once we had the lead, it should have been over. Today is a new day, a new opportunity here for us to push back and get back on track.

“We established a purpose to what we want to do on every shift and with the puck, and with our structure, we established that before the series began and I thought we really showed that well in Games 1 and 2 and got away from it.”

Keefe said the staff is “discussing some shifts to our lineup” but would not elaborate. Options might include defenceman Rasmus Sandin or forward Nic Petan.

We know there’s no way the Leafs will be able to fully replace defenceman Jake Muzzin, who will sit again after he was injured in Game 2.

Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped all 21 shots he faced in relief of Joonas Korpisalo in Game 3, will start in goal for Columbus, Tortorella confirmed.

tkoshan@postmedia.com

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