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Friedman: “This is the end of this group (Core 4) if Leafs don’t pull off a big comeback”

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
1 month ago
As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman put it himself in the latest episode of 32 Thoughts: The Podcast, Game 4 on Saturday night may have been rock bottom for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or, more specifically, the Core Four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares.
In what’s been an up-and-down series between the Leafs and their long-lasting playoff demons, the Boston Bruins, the feeling of anger and frustration coming from fans has never been more justified than it was after Game 4. With an opportunity to settle for a split against the Bruins on home ice and head back on the road with the series tied 2-2, the Leafs delivered an effort that was comparable to what they did in Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens in 2020-21. There was no jump to their game, no life from their special teams, and no confidence in their game, which more than likely affected the former two. The highlight of the game was a moment about midway through the second period when Matthews, Marner, and Nylander were caught having some sort of a verbal spat on the bench. It wasn’t anything crazy, but the three were visibly frustrated with each other (and likely the general state of the game). Nylander appeared to tell Marner to “quit f**king crying, this isn’t junior hockey.”
In talking to the media following that game, head coach Sheldon Keefe decided to take a glass-half-full approach with it, citing the interaction as “progress”. That’s certainly one way to put it. While his point about how the Core players had never verbally gotten on each other in the past reins true, shouldn’t this sort of progress have happened before Game 4 of your eighth playoff series together?
Either way, that’s neither here nor there. What was even more shocking than seeing the Core forwards beak at each other a little bit was the following quote from Friedman on 32 Thoughts, which you can listen to here.
“They’ve been together basically since 2016-17, and we’ve never seen that before from them. To see it in this moment, there’s only two ways to go. One, you just completely falter, you fall apart, and you go down quietly, or two, you rally, and you use it as a point where you come back and say “Ok, we hit rock bottom, now we’re going to prove that we’re on the way back.” and there really is no other option for them than to do that, because this is the end of this group if they don’t pull off the big comeback here. In some ways I can’t believe I’m saying it, because I always say don’t bet on talent. Ron brought up the Red Wings, how long did it take the Yzerman Red Wings to win, you look at the Capitals, how long did it take them to win, you always bet on talent and assume they’re going to figure it out. I don’t think you can do that here anymore.”
It’s a big shock to hear a proclamation like this before the Leafs are even eliminated, but it speaks volumes to what they’ve done (or haven’t done) in this series so far. People were dead convinced that the core was done after the loss to Montreal. Instead, they ran it back. They ran it back the following year after the Game 7 loss to Tampa, too. Even last season, after they finally got the monkey off their back and advanced past the first round, they were wiped away in no time by the Florida Panthers and the Core’s status was up in the air until Kyle Dubas parted ways with the team. Then, Team President Brendan Shanahan gave his group yet another vote of confidence. So, why would they make a change now? Friedman also touched on the specifics of that conversation.
“Number one, Marner’s contract. He’s got one more year, that’s going to force you into a decision. The Tavares contract has one more year, it’s going to force you into a decision. And you can only give so many votes of confidence to the same group, and they did one last summer. So, this is their last chance to prove that they should stay together, and as you listen to this right now, it’s hanging by a thread.”
After seven early exits in a row and potentially staring down the barrel of an eighth, the Leafs may feel the pressure to move on from the Core group on account of the taste in their fans’ mouths. No, you’re not going to trade Marner because Rick in North York said so, but it’s hard to foresee a situation where the fanbase will have an appetite to see the same four stars go for one last kick of the can for the ninth time in a row.
The Leafs have one last opportunity to show that this group can get it done together, and they’ve got just about every odd stacked against them to do so. Let’s see what they make of it.

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