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Leafs know if they put their minds to it, they can win Game 5

The excitement the Leafs showed following their OT victory on Friday was not lost on coach Sheldon Keefe, who said it was “beyond anything that I’ve seen from us.”  
The excitement the Leafs showed following their OT victory on Friday was not lost on coach Sheldon Keefe, who said it was “beyond anything that I’ve seen from us.”  

Mitch Marner tossed and turned on Friday night or, to be precise, in the early hours of Saturday morning.

“The adrenalin does keep you up a little bit, but regardless of the outcome of games, it’s usually pretty hard to get to bed,” the Maple Leafs winger said on Saturday. “Last night was probably a little harder than most.”

And for good reason: The Leafs, seemingly headed for another crushing post-season defeat, roared back with three goals in the final four minutes of Game 4 to tie the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-3, and then got the overtime winner from Auston Matthews.

No heading back to the Royal York to pack their bags, leave the bubble and drag themselves home.

Instead, the Leafs went into preparation mode for Game 5 of the qualifying round on Sunday night, with the winner going on to play the Philadelphia Flyers or the Tampa Bay Lightning (depending on the outcome of the round-robin match between those teams on Saturday night) in the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. The loser will be done, and then will cross its fingers that the 12.5% chance to win the draft lottery on Monday night and choose Alexis Lafreniere first overall becomes reality.
As enticing as playing with Lafreniere would be, the Leafs and Jackets just want to keep playing deeper into August.

For Leaf coach Sheldon Keefe, there are crucial factors at play.

“It was a huge boost for us, it gives us great positive momentum, the feeling after the game was tremendous,” Keefe said of the celebrations after Game 4. “The amount of joy I saw from our team is beyond anything that I’ve seen from us. I think the moment reflected that.

“We have to bring that momentum forward, but recognize that it’s a new game. We have to have a better start than we did, and we have to recognize that the opposition is going to reset themselves.”

The prediction game can be a foolish one — one could make an argument for either team to win Game 5 — but there are encouraging signs for Keefe that have been developing through the series.

“The effort and the commitment that we’re seeing from some guys are at a higher level than what we’ve seen from them before and that’s what we’ve been asking for,” Keefe said. “On the other side, I’m sure they have many players they would feel the same way about and feel the same way about their team.

“It’s such a fine line between winning and losing. We’ve seen really good progress in the areas that we really wanted to improve upon as we started camp. I feel like that’s given us a chance to win games.”

With the Leafs headed toward elimination on Friday, the circumstances led Keefe to use John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Marner on the same line, and we know what happened. But unless the Leafs fall behind on Sunday, it didn’t sound like Keefe will go to that well again.

“As I’ve said all along, I like the look of that line, I like what it brings,” Keefe said. “It does have impact on the remainder of the lineup, so that’s something for us to consider. We haven’t spent a great deal of time on that piece of it (Saturday) as a coaching staff.”

The Leafs will be the home team for the series decider, giving Keefe last change. Rather than practise on Saturday, the players were given the day to recover and get themselves in the right head space for Game 5.

“We know that we can play a great defensive game when we put our minds to it, back-checking wise, forechecking, not giving them a whole lot coming up the ice,” Marner said. “We’ve shown it in this series and we’ve shown it in the season. We know that if we play the right way defensively, we’re going to get our chances offensively.”

And if they capitalize on those chances, we would imagine sleep will come a little easier on Sunday night.

SPEZZA BRINGING ‘FOURTH’ HIS ‘A’ GAME

Jason Spezza provides for the Maple Leafs off the ice — the leadership, the experience, the great-guy quality — let’s not forget what the 37-year-old veteran has meant on the ice in the series against Columbus.

Spezza and his fourth-line pals Kyle Clifford and Pierre Engvall have been solid for the Leafs, often sustaining the kind of offensive-zone presence that helps wear down the Jackets’ defence corps.

On Friday night during Game 4, when coach Sheldon Keefe needed to give his stars a breather late in the stirring Toronto comeback, over the boards went the fourth line.

“It speaks to how they were competing and the impact they’re making,” Keefe said.
“It’s a credit to that entire line, but Spezza definitely brings a lot to our group.

“It goes beyond our team. In the Players’ Association, he had a very strong voice in that as well and was very hungry to come back and play.”

Spezza is among four Leafs, along with Clifford and defencemen Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, who will be headed for unrestricted free agency once the season is over.
We’ve seen nothing to suggest, whether the Leafs are done Sunday night or head to the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, that they should not bring Spezza back for 2020-21.

tkoshan@postmedia.com

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