Game 4 takeaways: The darkest hour of the Matthews-Marner era

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
1 month ago
This is the darkest hour of the Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner era. There’s no way around it. After submitting one of the most listless performances of the past decade, the Toronto Maple Leafs are on the verge of elimination, falling 3-1 to the Boston Bruins in Game Four.
Matthews did not return to the game with an undisclosed injury after the second period. It was revealed post-game that Matthews was dealing with the same illness that he’s been battling through the series. Marner, subject to much pre-game consternation, scored the Maple Leafs’ only goal but was otherwise moving around at half-speed as the Bruins cruised to victory.
Here are five takeaways from the Bruins’ 3-1 victory over the Maple Leafs in Game 4.
This is the darkest hour of the Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner era
We’re eight years into the Matthews-Marner era with nothing other than a first-round victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning to show for it and a handful of regular season accolades. This group is out of excuses and have squandered the benefit of the doubt. We are generally reticent to use effort level as a real critique of NHL players, they’re all making a strong effort, it’s not quantifiable. Tonight was the rare, brutal exception. It was a pathetic, lifeless performance from the Maple Leafs’ corps and Matthews eventually did not return to the game after the second intermission with an undisclosed reason.
During the second period while trailing 2-0, Matthews and Nylander were caught getting into it with Marner on the bench as Toronto’s winger threw his gloves off in frustration. Nylander appeared to say “stop f—ing crying, bro! This isn’t f—ing junior” in response to Marner’s reaction.
“We’re grown men. We’re just talking about plays out there that we all want to make sure we’re 100 percent in. Just a little off page there. We’re not yelling at each other before we hate each other,” Marner explained post-game via Sports Illustrated’s David Alter.
Throw the stat sheet out for this game, the expected goals do not convey the apathetic showing we witnessed on the ice. Marner scored a pretty slick between-the-legs goal in the third period moments after Matthews was ruled out of the contest, but it’s as much as the Maple Leafs could muster. The goal may be an afterthought. The fan base is ready to ship Marner out of town. Who can blame them after Saturday’s showing?
Keefe revealed post-game that Matthews was pulled due to the illness he’s been battling throughout the series, so No. 34 is absolved of real blame, but the on-ice showing from everyone other than the presumptive MVP was as listless as it’s been during the past decade. This may be the end of the Core Four as we know it.
Sheldon Keefe is completely out of answers 
Sheldon Keefe will have to wear this loss on his resume and it may be time to give it a polishing as he could be on his way out after the season ends, despite signing an extension last summer. Keefe is out of answers and he didn’t really try anything new or inventive until Matthews was ruled out of the game. For all intents and purposes, the game was already over.
This was a regular season full of experimentation for Keefe and his staff. He tinkered with line combinations well past the trade deadline, while many contenders had a strong idea of what their optimal playoff lineup would look like. OK, so Keefe surely didn’t anticipate William Nylander battling through migraines that kept him out of action for three games, but he mainly relied on the Tyler Bertuzzi-Auston Matthews-Max Domi combination and a prayer.
Keefe tried 104 forward combinations during the regular season and when it came time to rely a season full of data, he froze completely. With over three minutes remaining, Keefe allowed Toronto’s fourth line to square off against David Pastrnak’s line, while having final change. Advantage, Jim Montgomery.
Perhaps worst of all is that Keefe seemingly showed a lack of self-awareness post-game, insisting that everything is fine with this group.
“I don’t sense any frustration. Guys are pushing one another, guys are competitive, guys want to win. You know, it’s all it’s all part of it,” Keefe said post-game. Did we watch the same game? Is he privy to the conversations happening on his own bench?
We don’t like getting into the unquantifiable but this quote from Keefe is a doozy.
“Nothing wrong with our effort level here tonight. Guys are competing. It’s physical hockey. Guys are trying. It’s a good team over there. It’s limiting us. You can question a lot of things, can’t question the effort.”
We’d usually agree. But tonight was a capitulation for the ages and it revealed some stubborn, naive thinking from Keefe. He has one — or three, if you take the optimistic view — to figure it out.
A critical mistake from Ryan Reaves put the Leafs in a hole for the second time this series
Ryan Reaves gets picked on, sometimes unfairly, but for the second time in four games, he put the Maple Leafs in a hole with an unforced error. Reaves, on the wall in his own defensive third, tried a centring pass but it got deflected by Bruins defensemen Mason Lohrei, James van Riemsdyk corralled the puck and had all day to tuck it past an outstretched Ilya Samsonov for the game’s opening goal.
In a similar vein to Game 1, Toronto appeared to have control of the contest, only to have its momentum quashed by a brutal Reaves error. We’re not here to pick on him, but this was a brutal mistake at the most inopportune time. Toronto’s fourth line had been a strength in this series but it faltered badly, with Nick Robertson getting some initial minutes with Reaves and David Kampf. We told you to ignore the expected goals from tonight but it’s worth mentioning that Reaves finished with a two percent share at 5-on-5 and still got late minutes against one of the Bruins’ two scoring lines. At this rate, Keefe is probably going to run this combination back, so it may be a moot point.
Brad Marchand, 2024 Conn Smythe Trophy favourite? 
Brad Marchand submitted one of the best efforts of his career in Game 3 and followed it up by effectively ending the Maple Leafs’ season in Game 4. Marchand finished with a back-breaking power play goal and a primary assist on David Pastrnak’s 3-0 marker. His primary line was outshot, outchanced and yet it was Marchand skating away and routinely taunting the Maple Leafs, who had to pick the puck out of their net in shame.
This is admittedly tunnel-visioned but it’s possible Marchand is the early Conn Smythe Trophy favourite. He has not only dominated against the Maple Leafs, he’s completely demoralized them and may have put the wheels in motion towards the end of a disappointing era in Toronto.
Ilya Samsonov was not the problem in Game 4 
Let’s just keep it simple: Ilya Samsonov was not the problem in Game 4. Samsonov was pulled after the second intermission in favour of Joseph Woll, but it seemed like a tactic to wake the Maple Leafs up, rather than an indictment of his own game.
Keefe admitted as much post-game:
“The reason for it is we’re just trying to change things,” Keefe said via Alter. “You get to get Joe involved. That’s really it. You’re trying to change the momentum. As for what we’ll do going forward, we’ve got some time here to talk it through.”
Woll may end up as the 2024-25 starter but at this point of the series, there’s no point of going away from Samsonov. He, along with Matthews played the games of their lives during the Game 2 victory and he does present the Maple Leafs with their best chance of winning. At the very least, Samsonov, Matthews and new father Ilya Lyubushkin are the only Toronto players with passing grades tonight.

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