'The fourth one is obviously the toughest one:' Leafs a win away from exorcising first-round demons
The Toronto Maple Leafs are just one away from advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades.
Auston Matthews led the Maple Leafs to an improbable third-period comeback Monday night as the team scored three consecutive goals in just over six minutes to send Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning to overtime.
Alexander Kerfoot played hero in the extra period, scoring on 4:14 into OT on the power play to give the Leafs the 5-4 win and a 3-1 series lead with Game 5 set for Toronto on Thursday night.
Now comes the hard part.
"Let's not get carried away here," head coach Sheldon Keefe said after Game 4. "We've got a tough task here to finish off this series."
Toronto has had a difficult time closing out series since their last series victory in 2004, when Joe Nieuwendyk scored twice and Ed Belfour made 36 saves to eliminate the rival Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the opening round with a 4-1 victory on home ice.
The Maple Leafs are 0-8 in playoff series since that win in the Battle of Ontario, including six straight first-round series, and have lost 10 consecutive series-clinching opportunities, the longest active streak in the NHL.
Eliminating the Lightning, who have played in three straight Stanley Cup Finals, winning twice, will make the task even more difficult.
"We're going to see a very important game coming up," Keefe said. "I hope our guys take that and recognize that, let's keep pushing here. The team we beat here tonight, they are where they are because they very rarely lose two in a row, and they obviously don't lose three in a row very often.
"Winning that fourth one is going to be even harder. That's not lost on us. We'll make sure our group is ready and that our message is passed on that we've got to continue to be better.
The Maple Leafs have not won a series in 17 seasons which in the also the longest active streak in the NHL and the fifth longest of all-time. The Florida Panthers hold that record with 24 straight seasons without a series victory from 1996-97 to 2020-21.
"The fourth one is obviously the toughest one," Matthews said. "We know who we're up against and what they've accomplished, especially in the past couple of years. So this one is to enjoy tonight, then we have a couple of days to recharge and rest and refocus because we know they're going to be ready to come at us."
The Leafs have suffered some of their worst heartbreak in recent years, losing four Game 7s since 2017-18, including two to the Boston Bruins, one to the Montreal Canadiens (after leading the series 3-1) and most recently to the Lightning last season.
Toronto last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.