Leafs rally behind Matthews "b---- on the line" approach
The Maple Leafs held a media availability on Friday before flying back to Toronto.
When it comes to Toronto's previous playoff failures, Auston Matthews says "the past is in the past" and the superstar centre had a colourful way of describing the required mindset for Saturday's Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"It's about this next game and going out there with a purpose and with details and just competing for 60 minutes or whatever it takes," Matthews said moments after Thursday's overtime loss. "We just gotta put our balls on the line and go for it."
It's a message that's being embraced by the team.
"That's the perfect way to describe Game 7s," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "I mean, it requires an all-in effort."
"We got to have that mentality," agreed veteran defenceman Mark Giordano. "We got to believe in ourselves. We're good enough. We get out there and play our game, we're good enough to beat anybody. You just have to have that confidence in our game and that's what he meant by that."
The Leafs started tentatively in Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and got bounced from the bubble in 2020. Again, Toronto looked nervous to start Game 7 against Montreal last year and did not score until trailing 3-0 late in the third period.
"We certainly aren't uncomfortable as we go into this game," promised Keefe. "We are ready for it."
The Leafs are drawing confidence from how they battled back from a 2-0 hole for the second straight game on Thursday.
"We just kept competing," noted captain John Tavares. "We just kept our composure and we just kept playing. We had looks. A couple hit off his knob, you know, so close. You just got to keep going. You got to keep fighting and find a way to break through."
Toronto has outscored Tampa 12-10 in five-on-five play during the series.
Last year, the Leafs blew a 3-1 series lead and didn't play well for most of Game 6 in Montreal. During the best-of-five series against Columbus, they needed a late comeback from 3-0 down in Game 4 to stay alive.
"Going into Game 7 last year, and even in the Columbus series the prior year, you are on a bit of a downer because of your performance and how you failed to get it done," Keefe pointed out. "Although we lost in overtime last night, which is similar in a sense to Montreal, the manner in which we played, the calibre of our opponent, how hard they have pushed us, how we have handled that, how we put ourselves in a position to win, and how our individual players are feeling with their confidence that they have — all of those things combine to fill our group with excitement."
Matthews and Mitch Marner entered the deciding game last year feeling snakebitten with just one goal between them. This year, they have combined for six goals and 15 points.
"Since I've been here, I've just been really impressed with the demeanour of the group," said Giordano. "I think our top guys are leading the way."
Tavares, who got hurt in Game 1 last year and missed the rest of the series, scored twice on Thursday. He also scored in Game 5. William Nylander, meanwhile, has registered three straight multi-point games. And there's so much more beyond the points that the stars are providing.
"Matty and Johnny taking huge faceoffs, winning huge draws and playing really well in their own zone," Giordano highlighted. "Willy, whenever we need a spark, I feel like he's the guy who's been giving it to us lately."
Tavares has won 64.8 per cent of his faceoffs while Matthews is at 53.9 per cent. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is the only Lightning centre above 50 per cent in the playoffs.
Matthews has also led the Leafs in hits the past two games.
With Game 7 back home, Keefe will be able to give his stars favourable matchups and an even greater opportunity to influence the proceedings.
"The fact that our top players are thriving, feeling good and are confident, as well as the reaction and boost we have had from our fans throughout the series ...We just feel like this team has lots of fight in it and confidence and belief in what we are doing," Keefe said.
Toronto has fallen in five straight opening-round series, but even the Lightning seem to recognize that this Leafs team is different.
"I don't think we can look back at what happened to Toronto in the past and think, 'We got this,'" coach Jon Cooper told reporters on a Zoom call. "We'd be sorely mistaken if that's the attitude we took."
Brayden Point also downplayed that storyline.
"The mindset we're going up there with is they're a great team that plays good at home," the Game 6 overtime hero said. "That building's going to be rocking, so we got to be ready and try to have a good start."
The Lightning played one Game 7 en route to their consecutive Cup wins. Tampa shutout the New York Islanders 1-0 in the decisive game of the Stanley Cup semifinal series last year.
This will be the fifth straight year that Toronto plays in a do-or-die game. It almost feels like tradition, but these moments shouldn't be taken for granted. Giordano, who's suited up in more than 1,000 regular-season games, will be experiencing an NHL Game 7 for the first time at age 38.
"It's a great thing to be a part of," he said.
The Toronto native recalls cheering on the Leafs back in 2004 when they won a Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators to advance to the second round. That was the last Game 7 in Toronto in front of a big crowd and the last time the Leafs won a series.
"I remember bits and parts of it," Giordano said. "Just being a huge fan at the time and seeing the atmosphere in the city and the rink, it's a huge opportunity to be a part of that as players."
Michael Bunting, Ilya Lyubushkin, Colin Blackwell and David Kampf are also set to play in their first career Game 7.
Ondrej Kase (1-0) and Jake Muzzin (4-1) are the only Leafs that dressed on Thursday who have been on the winning side of a Game 7 in the NHL.
Muzzin, a Cup champion with the Los Angeles Kings, missed Toronto's last two do-or-die games due to injury.
Alex Kerfoot committed a turnover that led to Tampa's first goal on Thursday night. The message from Keefe afterwards?
"Just to shake it off," the coach said. "He'd have lots of opportunities to make a big play for us for the rest of the game. I thought he played really well."
Kerfoot's high-sticking penalty in the third period put the Leafs down two men and led to the tying goal. He was not made available to the media after the game.
Toronto's lineup from Thursday with record in Game 7s:
Bunting (0-0) - Matthews (0-3) - Marner (0-3)
Mikheyev (0-1) - Tavares (0-2) - Kerfoot (0-2)
Nylander (0-3) - Kampf (0-0) - Engvall (0-1)
Spezza (0-5) - Blackwell (0-0) - Kase (1-0)
Rielly (0-3) - Lyubushkin (0-0)
Muzzin (4-1) - Brodie (0-1)
Giordano (0-0) - Holl (0-1)
Kyle Clifford (4-0)
Timothy Liljegren (0-0)
Rasmus Sandin (0-1)
Wayne Simmonds (0-2)