"Job's not close to finished": Leafs know they can't celebrate too much yet

Apr 25 2023, 3:26 pm

The Toronto Maple Leafs — yes, the cursed, perennially disappointing Toronto Maple Leafs — are one game away from finally advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Toronto’s seen this movie before in various fashions since their last playoff series win in 2004, where they’ve had a chance to move on past the opening round and make a serious postseason run.

Of course, they’ve lost every single time.

Over the last decade, the Leafs have had 10 chances to clinch a first-round series: two in 2022, three in 2021, one in 2020, two in 2019, once in 2018, and once in 2013.

They’re 0-10 in those games against Boston, Montreal, Columbus, and these very same Lightning.

But last night’s 5-4 comeback overtime win in Game 4 over the Tampa Bay Lightning — where they were down 4-1 in the third period — has given the Leafs the chance to win just one of three potential remaining games to finally exorcise some type of playoff demons.

Auston Matthews began the third-period charge for Toronto last night, scoring his second and third goal of the playoffs within minutes of each other to pull Toronto within one. Toronto’s Morgan Rielly tied the game in regulation with just under four minutes to go, and Alex Kerfoot tipped in an overtime winner to give the Leafs a commanding 3-1 series lead.

But despite the euphoria surrounding last night’s win, the players themselves know that nothing in the NHL is over until there’s a handshake line at the end of the series.

“We all know in this room that the job’s not close to finished. We’ve got to refocus, enjoy this one, but obviously the fourth one’s the hardest one to win,” Matthews told reporters postgame.

The Lightning, of course, have been the opposite of the Leafs over the last 10 years or so: a postseason juggernaut who have made four Stanley Cup Finals appearances, winning back-to-back years in 2020 and 2021.

“We know who we’re up against, the group and what they’ve accomplished, especially in the last couple of years. We know they’re going to be ready to come in Game 5,” Matthews added.

Engineering such a comeback doesn’t happen all in one go.

For Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, while it sounds cliché, it’s all about taking things one step at a time.

“The message in the third period: Don’t go away. Stay with it. You are not necessarily at that point [of] thinking you are going to come back in the game,” Keefe told reporters postgame. “You just want to stay there and give yourself a chance to come back in the game versus just going away and moving on to the next one.”

Keefe credited “the spirit of the group” for allowing his team to believe in their ability to come back and beat the Lightning for a second straight game on the road in overtime while trailing in the third period.

“It is outstanding to witness and be a part of,” he said.

As for Kerfoot, Keefe praised his resiliency throughout the year after a low-output regular season where he totalled 10 goals and 22 assists in 82 games for Toronto.

“I felt pretty strongly he was going to score a massive goal for us this season,” he added. “I didn’t know when it was going to come, but I just felt that a guy who works as hard as he does and as good as he is for the leadership and spirit of our team is the guy who usually gets rewarded and should get rewarded… I was thrilled that he was the guy to get it done tonight.”

The Leafs return home on Thursday night, where they have a chance to close out the series at Scotiabank Arena.

Puck drop for Game 5 is set for 7 pm ET, with Toronto having the possibility of clinching their first postseason series victory since a 2004 win over the Ottawa Senators.

Adam LaskarisAdam Laskaris

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