Now that the Maple leaves had an adrenaline-fueled night enjoying their unfathomable comeback, here comes the undeniable truth. It is in the nature of sports history that the Miracle of Game 4 will only become iconic when the series is completed.
Legends are not built on playoff bow-outs. Just as Toronto’s star players delivered a barrage of goals to turn a 3-0 dying deficit into a 4-3 overtime win in their fourth game on Friday, it’s up to Toronto’s star players to get the deal in the crucial game on Sunday to seal.
Win and the Leafs will be among the 16 remaining teams in the hunt for the trophy. For the first time since 2004 they will be winners of some sort of postseason series. Perhaps more importantly, they’ll break the recent franchise habit of underperforming when the stakes get overwhelming.
Lose and the Leafs risk building their reputation as a talented teasing team – one with an amazing tendency to perform dazzlingly when marginalized, but somehow it doesn’t seem possible to get yourself across the finish line bring unmoved.
Maybe that’s unfair in some eyes. This was already a crazy opening week of competition in the NHL bubble, with the only thing predictable was Columbus trainer John Tortorella’s childlike clockwork in post-defeat media conferences.
The NHL’s midsummer return is about mitigating massive financial losses from coronavirus and providing welcome entertainment amid a pandemic. But it’s certainly not about fairness. Consider the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers, two of the four teams that ricocheted off the bubble on Elimination Friday. These two clubs spent a five-month regular season putting together the seventh and twelfth best records in the league, only to be eliminated in best-of-five series of Montreal and Chicago, respectively – the eighth and ninth worst teams. and playoff no-hoppers before the shutdown. Neither the Penguins nor the Oilers got anything resembling a home advantage for their regular season superiority – just the random reality of the wrong ending of a short streak. The only consolation for the losers is now a one-in-eight chance of the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft lottery on Monday.
And maybe, for the Penguins, in a week that franchise cornerstone Sidney Crosby turned 33, that can be spun as a profit. But for the Oilers and Leafs, whose best players are about a decade younger and infinitely less competitive than Pittsburgh’s # 87, now is the time. And this tournament, despite its various inconveniences, is a proving ground, if not a conventional one.
“Then find out who is who,” Tortorella told reporters in a less stressful moment before the series began, speaking of the kind of do-or-die hockey that is played on Sunday. “That is an additional pressure. And some guys just want it and they revel in it. Other guys are shrinking … that’s mental for me. It’s not physical. That is a mental strength to be able to deal with such situations. “
If Game 5 is going to be a test of mental toughness – not to mention the usual spins of the roulette wheel of bounces and puck luck and goalkeeping fortune – Leafs trainer Sheldon Keefe reckons it will be a measure of physical strength too To transform stamina of his star players. Keefe played his best players the way management pays them: boatloads. Game 4’s overtime hero, Auston Matthews, averages 25:41 per game in the Ice Age. Mitch Marner is 25:01 pm. There is no striker in the league who has had more run since the game was resumed. Which of course represents a fundamental change in the philosophy of Keefe’s predecessor Mike Babcock. In the last postseason under the latter, Matthews and Marner averaged around 20 minutes per game, with Marner finishing 19th among strikers and Matthews 32nd. Two post-seasons ago – ahead of a summer that saw Babcock make a home visit to Matthews in Scottsdale – Matthews finished 58th and Marner 66th in the average playoff Ice Age.
They both justified the increased responsibility with some timely injections of skill and great sorcery. But both were spotty in the first four games too. Whether this is a function of the need to compete in the face of a top performance in the league or the reality of playing big minutes against one of the best defensive teams in the league, their performances in this series will ultimately depend on Sunday’s result . Ditto Morgan Rielly, who averaged 28:19 per game, more than any other non-Seth Jones bubble defender, who has seen some wild downswings in his mostly excellent performance.
For his part, Columbus captain Nick Foligno insisted that the late game breakdown of his team would not “affect” his “resilient” group of players.
“I’m looking forward to developing a good memory (in game 5),” said Foligno.
Marner said the key for the Leafs is avoiding the self-inflicted damage that has put them in difficult situations all season.
“We can’t beat ourselves,” he said. “We know we can play a great defensive game if we focus on it – backchecking, fore checking, not giving a lot when we get on the ice… We have to keep that in mind. ”
This, of course, is a team whose collective mind is known to wander. As veteran defender Cody Ceci explained in January, Keefe took part in a delicate dance for a long time in an attempt to win the defensive side of the puck team-wide.
“We’re still trying to eliminate the stuff we’re giving up … but you don’t want to bore the skilled guys either,” Ceci said. “(If the skill players are asked to play too defensively) they can get into a doldrums, as if they are not accomplishing much.”
Even when promotion to the playoffs is at stake, sometimes it’s like getting the Leafs out of this lull and loudly reminding them that they are in a hockey game that counts. Keefe can only hope that the buzz of an all-time comeback – not to mention the burden of the severe Ice Age on the big guns – will keep this minor fact in mind on Sunday night. The miracle of Game 4 could certainly use a mindful Game 5 from the Leafs to create the kind of good Toronto hockey memory that’s long overdue.
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