May 27th, 2024

Desperate Maple Leafs look to stay alive as Matthews’ illness lingers ahead of Game 5

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on April 28, 2024.

Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews has been sidelined by a "lingering illness" as Toronto stares down playoff elimination. Matthews (34) and Morgan Rielly (44) react after Boston Bruins' Brad Marchand scored an empty-net goal during third period action in Game 3 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series in Toronto on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO – Auston Matthews gave everything he had for two periods.

Before departing Saturday’s bitterly disappointing 3-1 home loss with an illness as the Boston Bruins pushed the Maple Leafs to the brink of playoff elimination, Toronto’s sniper and two of his star teammates also gave it to each other – verbally – on the bench.

And despite the sequence getting dissected by media and fans alike in the aftermath, head coach Sheldon Keefe tried to put a positive spin on the high-profile exchange between Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander in the second period that included some choice words and tossed gloves.

“That happens when things aren’t going well,” Keefe said Sunday at the Leafs’ practice facility following a team meeting. “In the past, quite honestly, that wouldn’t have happened. Guys wouldn’t have talked it out “¦ that wouldn’t have happened. I look at that as progress. Those guys care. I don’t look at it as frustration.

“I look at them being upset and pissed off that they didn’t deliver for the team. They’re pushing and challenging each other to get it right.”

The Leafs, meanwhile, now have no wiggle room in their search to get things right.

Toronto has its back against the wall down 3-1 in its best-of-seven series heading into Tuesday’s Game 5 at TD Garden.

Keefe, whose group has just seven goals in 12 periods, said the margins have been small. The main issue for his disjointed roster has been special teams.

The Leafs’ power play is an ugly 1-for-14, while the penalty kill has been almost as bad with the Bruins connecting on six of 13 chances.

“These games that we’ve been in, they’re far closer than it may appear,” Keefe said. “We need little things to shift over into our favour, starting with special teams, whether we’re one finished chance away or one extra save away.”

Having things go in Toronto’s favour would include getting Matthews – the owner of 69 regular-season goals – back healthy.

Keefe said the illness that saw the centre pulled from Game 4 in the second intermission by doctors is “lingering” for a player who didn’t look like himself in a 4-2 loss in Game 3 following a monster two-goal, one-assist performance in a 3-2 victory two nights earlier that evened the series 1-1.

“Not one of those run-of-the-mill, everyday type of illnesses that sort of come and go,” said Keefe, whose job security could be in doubt if Toronto can’t turn things around. “This one has lingered and the effects have lingered and gotten worse when he’s getting on the ice and asserting himself.

“We’ve just got to manage that and give him the time that he needs. We’re hopeful that it’ll turn.”

The Leafs, who have lost 10 of their last 11 games against the Bruins dating back to last season, don’t have much time to get things figured out.

It was hoped Nylander’s return Saturday from an undisclosed injury that sidelined him through the first three contests would spark the struggling power play.

Keefe said things actually got worse as the unit failed to provide a boost and get the home crowd on Toronto’s side early.

“Had a chance to really get us going,” Keefe said. “Probably the most disappointing part of the game, and that the urgency level wasn’t higher at that particular time.”

Toronto does has some history pushing back in this spot.

The Leafs trailed the Bruins 3-1 in the opening round of the 2018 playoffs with Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Morgan Rielly in the fold, but won two straight to force a Game 7 they would lose in Boston. Toronto, which won a series last spring for the first time since 2004, also fell to its Atlantic Division rival in seven games at the same stage in 2013 and 2019.

If the Leafs can pull out a win Tuesday against the Bruins, who have some demons of their own after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Florida Panthers last spring, Game 6 would be Thursday back at Scotiabank Arena.

For that to happen, their stars – Matthews, Marner and Nylander – will have to figure things out.

On and off the ice.

“They know how important they are to the team. When they’re not delivering, they recognize it,” Keefe said. “They have great responsibility. They take it very seriously.

“They’re gonna work together to find their way.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2024.

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