Leafs Game 4 Recap: IT WAS 4-1!

That game is why you wait to start writing your post-game recap until the final horn has sounded, folks. The most remarkable comeback in Toronto Maple Leafs history, ten years on from arguably their lowest moment in franchise history (the game seven collapse against Boston), puts the Leafs up 3-1 in the series going home for game five. 99% of every Leaf fan out there did not think they were coming back. There was no reason to believe they would. Toronto looked lifeless, lethargic, and downright outplayed for most of game four. It was awful. But being a Leaf fan means you are pre-ordained to always carry that 1% that thinks, “maybe, maybe this is the time they do it.” It’s why we all come back year after year and watch this team go through the slog of an 82-game season just to let us down in the playoffs. We do it for that slight chance, that little ray of hope that, potentially, it is our time to experience the unrivalled joy of winning it all. Tonight, we witnessed a small glimmer into what it’s like to cheer for the team that pulls off the miracle instead of the team that crumbles to ashes, and man, it feels so fucking good.

Called Passion Dawg

I don’t even really want to talk about the first 40 minutes of game four. But I’m a professional, so I will. It was eerily similar to Toronto’s performance in game three, minus the Leaf goals. Simple passes were not being completed, the powerplay struggled to even get into the offensive zone, and Tampa was quicker to every puck. It was the type of performance in such an important game that Leaf fans had sadly seen so many times before. A graphic flashed during the first period; It showed that Toronto was 1-17 when leading a playoff series in their last 18 games. It is nothing new for this team to pat themselves on the back when they have done a few things well and completely shut down when it matters most. We saw it after game five against Boston in 2019, game four against Columbus in 2020, after they went up 3-1 against Montreal in 2021, and in-game seven last year. It’s not as simple as I’ve just made it seem, but when you have a record of 1 and 17 in these games, the seeming lack of killer instinct is also not a coincidence. Kucherov toyed with the Leafs’ penalty kill to set up Tampa’s first goal, and Toronto was in complete disarray leading to Mikhail Sergachev adding to the Lightning lead.

The first flicker of a fire being lit under the Leafs’ ass was evident in the second period after Sheldon Keefe FINALLY changed the forward lines. Matthews and Marner were split up, and the Leafs were getting pressure from multiple units. It wasn’t overwhelming pressure, but they controlled most of the puck, leading to a goal from Noel Acciari. ‘Cookie,’ as the boys in the room call him, has been quietly great for Toronto’s bottom six and has goals in consecutive games. Unfortunately, the Leaf push did not last long after that, as Steven Stamkos had one bounce off his skate for the third goal, and Alex Killorn scored with under a minute to go in the second period. The dominant narrative from most, including myself, was that the Leafs’ figurative back was broken after that, and the series would be tied. But don’t forget about that 1% we mentioned.

The third period began much like the second. Unsurprisingly, Tampa allowed the boys in blue to carry play as they had a three-goal lead, and Toronto obliged them. What was clear was that the Leafs would not be rushed into making bad decisions and forcing things. They were urgent but not careless, and they were starting to create space in the middle of the offensive zone, which they had struggled to do previously. Their transition game was also finding room in the neutral zone. The biggest problem Toronto has had offensively is that they have been denied any room to skate in neutral ice, which has stifled their usually ferocious forecheck. They have to dump the puck in from worse spots on the ice, with less coordinated pressure on the Lightning breakout, and Tampa has often made one or two easy passes and bypassed the Leaf forecheck. But in the third period, Toronto was coming in waves, and Tampa had no time to set up. The puck would come out to centre ice, and right back in, it would come. Toronto’s second goal is a great example of this.

Second tweet is key.

It’s really a great pass by Brodie to eliminate two Tampa players and, again, not give them any time to breathe. From there, it’s the Leafs’ three best players doing what they are great at, and it is in the back of the net in a flash.

The third goal was when things started to get real. The Leafs’ powerplay had been brutal all night, often with little to no zone time. They managed to get into the zone (a rare occurrence), and Auston Matthews did what he does so well, finding open spaces in the offensive area. It was a great look by Nylander and even better hand-eye skills from Big Tone, 4-3 Lightning. Shout out to Matthews, who was getting dogged all night for his lack of star power and ability to take over a game. He was all over the puck in the third period, and his two goals were obviously essential to the comeback. They were vintage Auston Matthews, and he continues to perform at a high level in the playoffs.

The tying goal, scored by Morgan Rielly, was another example of the Leafs crowding the net around Andrei Vasilevsky and making it difficult for him to track the puck. There was an interesting tidbit post-game from Derek Lalonde.

The dude looks like Gru from Despicable Me, but this is interesting. So many Leaf goals have come from tips or straight-up shots from the point. They are making it a focus to disrupt Vasi’s vision. Also, I was giving Mitch Marner shit all game for making lazy passes and not winning his battles, but the fourth goal does not happen without him getting the puck back to Rielly through two Tampa players. Two big primary assists for Mitch in the third, love to see it.

There was ever only going to be one guy who scored the overtime winner, and that was Alexander Kerfoot. Superb, aggressive play by Nylander to get to the net and draw the penalty, which led to the powerplay goal, and man, what a time for Kerfoot to score his first goal in what seems like five years. Besides a great tip, there’s not much to analyze, and I am really happy for Kerfoot. Everyone has been on him for the entire year, including me, and there must be no better feeling than that for him and for us too. Enjoy Joe Bowen’s call of the goal.

What a game, what an ending. Scotiabank Arena will be insane Thursday night.

Now for some macro takes about the series. I was hoping Keefe would change the lineup before game four because of how bad the Leafs played overall in game three. He didn’t, and it almost cost them. He cannot make the same mistake in game five. Michael Bunting coming back into the lineup is an easy decision, and you’re kidding yourself if you think it isn’t. He has back-to-back 20-goal seasons and will have learned his lesson and put him in over Aston Reese. Secondly, keep Matthews and Marner apart, they need to drive their own lines, and I think Matthew Knies (who was again brilliant) has some natural chemistry with Marner and Tavares. Also, Willy and Matthews work. We know they work. Just put them together. People are ragging on Justin Holl, I haven’t been offended by his play, but I would like to see Timothy Liljegren play. He will help Toronto’s transition and breakout with his ability to skate and pass the puck. He should get a chance. T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano both look either injured or tired, so I would take one of them out personally, but with an extra day of rest, maybe they will get back to 100%. In summary, stick with what worked (the new forward lines from period two on), but don’t rest on your laurels (get Bunting and Liljegren in for some energy and skill). Okay, questions.


What is different about this team from previous years?

This is obviously a very layered question, but it is important, and I want to break it down. First, it insinuates that this team IS different. I think they are, and you probably do too, but they haven’t won anything yet. Even if they win Thursday, they still have 12 more to go. Secondly, tonight’s scenario wasn’t all that different. They’ve been up 3-1 before, gone home for game five and lost the series. They had come back from three goals down in a game before and lost the series. However, tonight was an incredible display of resilience, patience, and killer instinct. They pounced on the first sign of weakness in back-to-back games against a team that has not lost to an Eastern Conference opponent in the playoffs since 2019. Toronto walked into Tampa’s arena and stole two straight games right before the Lightning’s face. Their goalie made every big save that was asked of him and made it clear that there was no way he was going to ruin his team’s comeback by letting in a soft goal. Ilya Samsonov has been unbelievable, and because of him, this team might be different. They are different because of Ryan O’Reilly (again, fantastic), Noel Acciari, and Jake McCabe and the fact that the core of this team is mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. No one can criticize how much they want to win anymore.

No, the job is not finished, and we all might end up with egg on our faces in a week, two weeks, three weeks or even a month. But aren’t you so excited to find out? Aren’t you just dying to be along for the ride while this team gets past (potentially) every hurdle they have tripped over so many times before? I know for a fact that I am. That’s what being a fan of this team is all about. What an unforgettable night.

See you Thursday, Leafs Forever.

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