To end my last column, I said that the blown lead only coming in Game 3 provided the Leafs with an opportunity to step up and prove to us and themselves that this team was different.
With Game 7 against Boston in 2013, it was over for the Leafs, that was it. They didn’t get that second opportunity to prove themselves until four months later with an entirely different team.
The difference is that it isn’t over for this Leafs team. They have a chance tonight, and if they play it well, they have another one on Sunday. This is where they prove to themselves and to everybody that they have what it takes.
They have an opportunity with their backs against the wall to step up, and overcome this heartbreak. Or, they’ll sit back, let the Blue Jackets beat them in Game 4, and it’s over.
The choice is theirs.
And for a while, it looked like it was the latter. While the Leafs weren’t getting dominated in the game as far as possession goes (it was pretty even in the first, and the Leafs dominated the second, even when you factor in score effects). But even then, there was just something off about the team for the first 55 minutes of the game, especially Morgan Rielly’s blunder on the 3-0 goal.
But then something happened. Something that we’ve never seen from this team.
Because so far in this series, every game has had some resemblance of the Leafs this season. Game 1 saw the Leafs perform like they didn’t want to push too hard to beat the systems of the other team. Game 2 saw the Leafs perform like those rare times where everything clicked and you could tell they wanted to win. Game 3 saw the Leafs perform like what everyone thinks the Leafs are. And Game 4 started out as the Leafs clearly giving up, which they’ve done so many times before.
And then they gave us something different. They gave us a team that actually stepped up in the face of adversity. While we’ve seen this team make comebacks before, it was never in a moment like this. Lots of fans (including myself) had written this team off, and were already making offseason plans. Then they got one, then another, and then suddenly it was tied four minutes later.
But, they’re just trying to give us hope. They’ll lose it in overtime, right?
Nope, they would actually get a power play, and for some reason, Columbus left Auston Matthews wide open for the game winner.
This is something we’ve seen happen at the Leafs expense far too often, only to see it make that team even stronger and see them really succeed. But for the first time in a long time, it happened to the Leafs. And now, they have a chance to truly prove themselves.
That comeback gave us a team that we’d never seen before, one that looks capable of reaching that next level in the postseason. Up to this point, they’ve caved in the face of adversity, but for once they finally didn’t.
But that’s not enough, because they still have one more game. A team truly capable of winning it all will take the momentum from Game 4, and ride it to a win in Game 5. They don’t have to dominate, but a win’s a win. If they come in with the performance they had in the second half of Game 3 or most of Game 4, and they’ll show us that they’re still the same team they’ve always been.
Important details for Game 5
There were a few lineup questions going into Game 5 for both teams, so I thought I’d finish this off by quickly going over these.
Despite leaving quarantine and skating today, Jake Muzzin will still not be in the lineup, so the Leafs will have to continue to survive defensively without him. They haven’t been doing too bad, as they’ve had 5v5 score adjusted xGA/60 of 1.99 and 1.9 in Games 3 and 4, but those have been their worst defensive games of the series as well. They’ve had stretches of excellent play in both games without him, but have failed to play a full 60 minute game in both games.
Both Werenski and Murray will be in the lineup for Columbus, so the Blue Jackets defense will still be as daunting as always. However, it’s probably likely that they aren’t 100% healthy, so the Leafs should probably look to exploit that throughout the game.
Also, Joonas Korpisalo will be starting, because apparently Elvis Merzlikins got hurt at some point in Game 4. As I’ve said for the last couple weeks, Korpisalo is the worse goalie of the two, so that does bode better for us as well. It seemed like the Leafs had finally gotten in his head when he was pulled in Game 3, so we’ll see if that carries over into Game 5. I’m not holding my breath because goalies are usually pretty good at getting over loses quickly, but it might be key to try and get a goal early on Korpisalo.