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Maple Leafs at risk of seventh opening-round exit in eight years


The Toronto Maple Leafs are staring down yet another early exit from the postseason as they enter Game 5 against the Boston Bruins down 3-1 in their first round series.

Despite reaching the playoffs in each of the past eight years, the Maple Leafs have advanced past the opening round just once. Toronto finally exorcised their first-round demons last season, eliminating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games, but were then quickly dispatched by the Florida Panthers in the second round. 

Coming back from down 3-1 to force a Game 7 isn't out of the question for the Maple Leafs, who did so against Boston in 2018, but finishing the job has been a struggle.

Entering Game 5 on Tuesday, the Maple Leafs may be forced to play without star centre Auston Matthews, who continues to be sidelined by illness. The 26-year-old centre played through the illness in Game 3, but was pulled from Game 4 by team doctors after the second period and did not participate in practice Monday.

Matthews did travel with the Maple Leafs to Boston, but his status remains to be determined for the must-win contest.

"We're hopeful that he's available and feeling good and back to himself," head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "But we've played well with guys out in the past."

"Not ideal to be without Auston Matthews," team captain John Tavares added. "One of the best players in the world, but there's tremendous depth, talent and character on this team. It's a great opportunity for all of us to step up (and) raise our game, which is already needed and necessary."

The Maple Leafs have yet to miss the playoffs since winning the draft lottery in 2016 and selecting Matthews first overall. Once in the postseason, though, success has proven hard to come by:

Maple Leafs Playoff Timeline

2016-2017: Maple Leafs (40-27-15) fall 4-2 to the Washington Capitals in the first round
2017-18: Maple Leafs (49-26-7) fall 4-3 to the Boston Bruins in the first round
2018-19: Maple Leafs (46-28-8) fall 4-3 to the Boston Bruins in the first round
2019-20: Maple Leafs (36-25-9) fall 4-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round
2020-21: Maple Leafs (35-13-7) fall 4-3 to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round
2021-22: Maple Leafs (54-21-7) fall 4-3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round
2022-23: Maple Leafs (50-21-11) defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 in the first round, then fall 4-1 to the Florida Panthers in the second round
2023-2024: Maple Leafs (40-26-10) currently trail the Boston Bruins 3-1 in the first round

Mike Babcock was behind the bench for the Maple Leafs in each of the first three series, with Keefe replacing him during the 2019-20 campaign. While Keefe did sign a two-year extension last summer, the 43-year-old's future with the team could be in question if Toronto fails to mount a comeback this year. 

Significant roster change could also lie ahead for Toronto, who have committed to their Core 4 of Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Tavares since 2018. Matthews and Nylander signed contract extensions this season, but Tavares and Mitch Marner will both enter the final year of their deals on July 1.

With their season - and for some, their future with the Maple Leafs - on the line on entering Game 5, Tavares kept a calm tone Monday.  

"I don't think you need to go out there and try to do everything," Tavares said. "It can get easy to get caught up in that, but you want to go out there and execute at a high level and just play at a very high standard, be very, very competitive. Continuing just to draw us in the fight, and to continue to stay with our game and believing in one another." 

Game 6, if necessary, is scheduled for Thursday in Toronto.