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Leafs' stars 'pushing' each other as intensity mounts through Game 4 loss

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs Sheldon Keefe - The Canadian Press

In the second period of Game 4 on Saturday night, frustration appeared to boil to the surface on the Toronto Maple Leafs' bench. Star players Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander traded heated words after failing to generate much pressure on a shift together. 

"I look at it as something that happens when things aren't going well," coach Sheldon Keefe said. "In the past, quite honestly, that wouldn't have happened. Guys wouldn't have talked it out, wouldn't have, you want to call it 'arguing it out,' that wouldn't have happened. I look at that as progress and 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 and they're pushing and challenging each other to get it right."

Trailing 3-0, the Leafs made a push in the third period, outshooting the Boston Bruins 10-5. 

"The remainder of the game, the next opportunities that we had, the 6-on-5, all these things, they're working together, they're talking about it, they're making a plan and talking in the intermissions," Keefe said. "These guys have been together a long time and they're pushing and challenging each other to get it right. They know how important they are to the team. When they're not delivering, they recognize it. I don't look at it as much more than that. And, quite honestly, it's not the first time that it's happened."

With two days between games, the Leafs did not hold a practice on Sunday. No players were made available to the media. 

"This is a fractured room at this point in time," said TSN Hockey Insider Chris Johnston. "I think there's a lot of tension between those players and that was rock bottom for this group."

The Leafs have made the playoffs every season since Matthews and Marner broke into the league in 2016-17, but have just one series win in that time. Toronto knocked out the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round last year, but instead of building momentum after getting over the hump, they have lost seven of their next nine playoff games.  

Marner threw his gloves on the ground during the much-scrutinized sequence in Game 4. But in the dressing room after Saturday's setback, Marner objected to the idea that frustration is building. 

"We're grown men," the 26-year-old winger said. "We're not yelling at each other because we hate each other, we just want to all be on the same page and help each other out. Trying to get the best offensive chance and [it] didn't work out that one opportunity. Willy and I and Auston, we talked about it after, we're just trying to make a play and unfortunately it didn't happen on that one."

"We expect a lot from each other," said Nylander. "We love each other. So just to push each other, have a high ceiling, I think is great."

Marner scored Toronto's lone goal on Saturday, but has been limited to two points in the series. He's part of a penalty kill that has been scored on in every game. Boston is 6/13 in the series and Marner has been on the ice for three of those goals.  

"Always can improve," Marner said when asked about his play. "I mean, obviously we're losing 3-1 in the series, so I want to be better. I want to help the team win."

The Bruins, meanwhile, are happy with what they're getting from their star players. 

David Pastrnak scored his second goal of the series late in the second period in Game 4. Bruins winger Brad Marchand picked up a goal and an assist on Saturday night. He leads the series with eight points.

"In the playoffs you need your big-time players to make big-time plays and they're doing it for us," coach Jim Montgomery said. 

ContentId(1.2112629): Keefe explains why bench bickering between Leafs stars is 'progress'


Matthews, who has been dealing with an illness, didn't return for the third period on Saturday. 

"The doctors pulled him," Keefe revealed after the game. 

Matthews, who has one goal in the series, missed the morning skate on Wednesday before Game 3 and also sat out Friday's practice. He did take the ice on Saturday morning at the optional skate. 

"It's not one of those run of the mill, every-day type of illnesses that sort of come and go," Keefe said. "It's lingered. The effects have lingered and it's gotten worse every time he gets out on the ice asserting himself. We've just got to manage that and give him the time that he needs."

After dominating Game 2 with three points, Matthews has been limited to four shots in the last two games. 

"It sucks to see him not return for the third," Nylander said. "Hopefully ready for the next game."

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Nylander just returned after missing the first three games of the series with an undisclosed issue. 

"I had chances," he said of his performance in Game 4. "I mean, I could have put one in there. We were generating a couple chances. I mean, obviously would be nice to get one on the power play, that's a major factor in the series."

Nylander landed three shots in 22 minutes and 24 seconds of ice time. He took a penalty in the third period. 

"It was good for him to get in the game," Keefe said. "He got better as it wore on. He looked to me like a guy that's definitely adjusting to the series and what's required in the series to be able to have success. Some of the things that he was looking to do aren't available. This team defends very well and he needs to adapt to the series, but he will."

Nylander had not played since the regular season finale on April 17.  

"Willy's a guy that obviously can make a difference and wants to make a difference," said Keefe. "He'll make adjustments going into the next game that will help him out."

Nylander went cold at the end of the regular season, with just four assists in the last 11 games. 

ContentId(1.2112633): Nylander 'looked like a guy that's definitely adjusting to the series'


Nylander led the Leafs with 35 points on the power play in the regular season, and his return was expected to provide a spark on special teams. It didn't work out that way as the Leafs went 0-for-3 in Game 4. 

"It got worse, not better," Keefe admitted. 

Boston was whistled for too many men early in the first period and Toronto's top unit failed to apply any pressure. 

"That was probably the most disappointing part of the game," Keefe said. "That the urgency level wasn't higher that particular time."

The Leafs also failed to convert on a 53-second 4-on-3 advantage in the first period. 

"We won one game in this series and it's the game that we scored a power-play goal at an important time," Keefe pointed out. 

Toronto is just 1/14 on the power play. 

"We've had a lot of looks up until tonight," captain John Tavares stressed after Saturday's game. "We just couldn't seem to get ... anything clean and we didn't retrieve pucks as well. Throughout the series obviously the numbers don't look great but I think the opportunities have been there and we just haven't been able to cash in and find ways to get you know maybe more second and third opportunities. We need to flip the script in that area."

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Keefe's message to the team on Sunday? 

"We're in here today, recovering and meeting and all that, because we're still alive," he said. "We're in this series."

The coach highlighted that his team has responded well on the road all season and just won at TD Garden in Game 2. 

"So there's reasons for optimism there," he said. "That's what we're just trying to make sure the players are aware of and that's the front of mind."

In 5-on-5 play, the Bruins are only up 7-6. 

"This series and these games are a lot closer than they may appear," Keefe stressed. 

Toronto scored 3.63 goals per game in the regular season, which was second overall. The Leafs have scored just seven goals through four games against the Bruins. Montgomery acknowledged he's "very surprised" the Leafs haven't scored more. 

"It's a great effort by both our goalies and our commitment to being above the puck and playing the right way," he said. 

What can the Leafs do differently? 

"More things going towards the net," defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "We turned down some shots. When we did get offensive zone time and we did get things towards the net, there was some stuff happening, but not nearly enough. And then in the neutral zone, I think they did a good job of plugging it up. So, for us, just executing and trying to come through with possession and go from there."

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Boston is also dealing with some playoff demons. 

Last season, the Bruins were in this exact same spot – up 3-1 in the first round heading home following two road wins – and ultimately fell in seven games to the Florida Panthers. Marchand interrupted a question about that on Saturday night and said this is a different group that's living in the moment. 

But Montgomery is hoping his team will remember what went wrong a year ago. 

"It hurt," the coach said. "We're going to see how much we've learned. We'll see by our start on Tuesday." 

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Goaltender Ilya Samsonov was pulled after allowing three goals on 17 shots in the first two periods on Saturday. Joseph Woll stopped all five shots he faced in the third period. 

"We are trying to change things and get Joe involved," Keefe explained. "That is really it. You are trying to change some momentum. As for going forward, we have some time to talk it through."

Woll hasn't started a game since allowing four goals on 41 shots in a loss to the Florida Panthers on April 16. He lost all three starts he had against the Bruins in the regular season. 

Samsonov's save percentage through four games in the series is .883. 

Montgomery isn't confirming his Game 5 starter, but it's expected the Bruins will stick with Jeremy Swayman, who is 3-0-0 with a .956 save percentage in the series and has won seven straight games against the Leafs. 


The Leafs will hold a practice on Monday morning before flying to Boston.