Leafs Game Five Recap: Same Old Story

After the Leafs overturned a three-goal deficit in game four and won in overtime, each one of the players that answered questions post-game was asked the same question. “How important is it to stick the dagger into a team like this (three straight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals) when you are in this spot?” Not exactly a great question, but it points to something that this Toronto team has been laughably bad at for seven years, eliminating a team when they have a chance to. Sportsnet flashed the stat that the Leafs are 0-9 in games where they had a chance to move on since Auston Matthews was drafted. Now, five of those are game sevens, usually volatile one-game do-or-die events, and it is almost mathematically inconceivable that the Leafs haven’t won one of those games. However, the other four games (now five) are the ones that irk me the most about the now 0-10 stat. The Leafs have now had three chances in the last five years to close a series out at home before game seven. 2019 game six against Boston, game five during the empty arena year in 2021 against Montreal, and last night. When Toronto has had the chance to make it easy on themselves, they have repeatedly shit their pants.

It could have been a better start for the Buds. As expected, Tampa came out hot again and was getting the jump to every puck. Then finally, the Leafs got a decent zone entry, and after some solid work from John Tavares down low, he got it out to Morgan Rielly, who was left wide open in the high slot. Rielly gave the Leafs the lead for 28 seconds before Anthony Cirelli tied it. This is the point where we go into our Justin Holl/Sheldon Keefe rant.

Firstly, Keefe might be one of the worst coaches I have seen when it comes to putting out a team’s bad players after they have just scored a goal. He often puts out Toronto’s fourth line directly after a goal for some reason, and here he throws out his worst pairing against what has been Tampa’s most effective line (Killorn-Cirelli-Hagel). You have just gone up a goal and gotten the crowd to go nuts. Put your best players out there, and make sure you keep the momentum. Secondly, Holl has to understand that 30 seconds after your team scores is not the time to try to be Dion Phaneuf. First, he was not even close to making contact with Hagel and got embarrassed. Then he loses his stick and struggles to pick it up, allowing Hagel to be wide open in front of the net, leading to Cirelli’s goal. The Justin Holl and Mark Giordano pairing were on for all three goals against, and if they are still a pairing for game six, Sheldon Keefe should not coach game seven.

The Leafs were outshot and out-chanced at five-on-five in the first, and the second was more of the same. On the Lightning’s second goal, more comedy of errors from Mr. Holl and Ilya Samsonov gives up a goal no NHL goalie should allow.

Mikey Eyssimont is fast. That is probably his only outstanding trait. Still, Holl is caught flat-footed on a very routine play and then pivots to the inside giving Eyssimont even more room to walk into an area where he can get a shot off. It is not a good shot that he gets away, and I have no idea what Samsonov was thinking here. Eyssimont is below the circle, and no one is charging the net. All Samsonov needed to do was have his pad on the post and his stick protecting his five-hole. Somehow it slipped through, and there is that backbreaking goal in a big game given up by a goalie that Leaf fans have been so used to since 2017. Again, the Leafs were outshot and out-chanced in the second period.

The Leafs started the third period relatively well, partly because they started on the power play. Mitch Marner then got a great chance on a breakaway and missed. Marner has just four points in those ten potential series-clinching games and zero goals. As the period went on the Lightning started to get a fair number of chances off the rush. Then with just over eight minutes left and Toronto’s fourth line taking a shift with their third defence pairing, Nick Paul scores to make the lead two.

Giordano, who is clearly struggling with the pace of these games at age 39, gets beaten to the puck quite easily by Ross Colton. Colton throws it in front of the net, and Zach Aston-Reese, for some reason, then kicks the puck straight onto the stick of Nick Paul. I am not sure what Aston-Reese is thinking, but if I had to guess, it would probably be something like, “Why the fuck am I on the ice right now.” Paul buries it while Samsonov is lying face-first on his belly after being knocked over by David Kampf. Just a brilliant representation of how game five went for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Leafs pushed back pretty well, and Auston Matthews cut it to one with over three minutes left. But making another late multi-goal comeback was not feasible, and that was all she wrote for game five. Another chance for the Leafs to move on at home, another chance wasted. I have watched a lot of lousy coaching for this Leafs team ever since Pat Quinn left the team. I have watched Ron Wilson get chants to be fired on home ice, and I have seen Randy Carlyle’s teams get eviscerated every night, win thanks to outstanding goaltending, and then be shocked when it was not sustainable. I have seen Mike Babcock give Auston Matthews less than 20 minutes of ice time in game seven while throwing out a nearly 40-year-old Patrick Marleau with the goalie pulled late in that SAME GAME. Of course, Sheldon Keefe himself has done his fair share of moronic shit. But tonight was the epitome of failure from Keefe and his coaching staff.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had a viral clip saying there is no failure in sports, only lessons. This shows that he is wrong. There is failure in sports when you do not learn from your mistakes. The Leafs got ran out of the rink in game three and somehow won, and were losing for almost the entire hockey game in game four and somehow won. Sheldon Keefe took the fact that the Leafs won and decided that there was nothing wrong with how they were playing. The lineup is the lineup, and it was obviously stupid to keep Michael Bunting out of it. This is not hindsight, I, and everyone else, said it multiple times. But they didn’t lose because of that. They lost because of deployment and a lack of innovation in strategy. The Leafs are a franchise that prides itself on being cutting-edge and industry leaders in modern ways of building a hockey team. However, their coach is anything but that. Yet again, the Leafs could not figure out a comfortable way to break the Lightning’s neutral zone pressure/trap, and yet again, Toronto was outplayed in every facet of the game. The Leafs didn’t try anything different, and other than William Nylander, not a single Leaf tried to skate into Tampa’s zone while contested. It was dump-in after dump-in, which were, for the most part, quickly turned back by the Lightning.

I will say for the third straight article that the Leafs should give Timothy Liljegren a chance to play because his skillset is exactly what Toronto lacks on defence. Only Morgan Rielly is better than Liljegren when it comes to skating the puck out of the defensive zone or stretching the opposition with a good pass. If Keefe wants to keep Holl in for whatever reason, he can deploy an 11/7. Eleven forwards and seven defensemen. Eleven forwards allow you to get Bunting in and take out Aston-Reese and Sam Lafferty, who has been terrible. Seven defensemen mean Holl can play the penalty kill and low-leverage situations at five-on-five while Liljegren can play all the offensive zones draws.

Game five was eerily familiar for Leaf fans, and the impending doom of a potential game seven means game six Saturday is likely a must-win for Toronto. But, even if it isn’t, the Leafs must play like it is. These could be the last games this core group ever plays together, and it should be if they manage to blow this. They are still leading this series, and they should think back to the question that the same reporter asked of them. Put the dagger into the Lightning when you have the chance because you won’t have an opportunity like this ever again if you don’t.

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