The Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets held media availabilities ahead of Game 4 on Friday.
Toronto's edge in offensive skill has led to more high-danger chances (34-24) and possession (51.72 per cent of shot attempts at even strength), but not wins against Columbus. Having blown a 3-0 lead last night, the Leafs have now been pushed to the brink of elimination by the plucky Blue Jackets.
A team with championship aspirations is still searching for a championship mentality.
"We've talked about mental toughness and the need to push through when things are difficult," coach Sheldon Keefe said on Friday afternoon. "We've talked about that throughout the pause and from Day 1 of training camp, so the work is done in advance and we get a chance today to utilize it."
Keefe viewed Game 3 as a failure on two levels. One, the team did not play the right way from puck drop. And, two, they couldn't lock things down despite building a sizeable lead against the Jackets, who finished tied for 27th in goals per game in the regular season.
The collapse felt familiar for a Leafs team that has struggled to find a consistent effort level this season and failed to close out the Bruins last year despite grabbing an early lead in Game 6. It also felt familiar for the Jackets, who overcame a 3-0 deficit in Game 1 against the favoured Lightning last year.
"The mental part of the game, to me, far outweighs the Xs and Os of the game right now," said Columbus coach John Tortorella, who has guided his teams to nine series wins in the NHL, including a Stanley Cup in 2004. "So that's something that we do try and coach quite a bit, a lot more than Xs and Os. But then it falls on the players and how they handle it ... I think to develop mental toughness you need to go through experiences, and then do you fall in a fetal position or do you handle it head on?"
Down 3-0 last night, the Jackets handled their situation head on. Seth Jones, who accidentally deflected in Toronto’s first goal, made amends with his own tally while logging 32 minutes and 40 seconds of ice time. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was the subject of a Tortorella tongue-lashing in Game 2, responded with the first playoff hat trick in franchise history.
"We've been through a lot as a team over the years and certain things, unforeseen things, within the room, within our games," said Jackets captain Nick Foligno. "I think it's allowed us to grow as a core group and as a team and as leaders on the team. We feel comfortable in these situations and we've always talked about that, how you thrive when you feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations and I think our team is like that. We enjoy that. We embrace that challenge and it's something that drives us every game."
For all their warts during this roller-coaster season, the Leafs feel like they've actually responded to adversity fairly well. After every setback, they found a way to get back on track. Before the pause, for example, they got swept by the Western Conference's three worst teams in California before returning home to beat the Lightning 2-1.
"We've been a team that's been bouncing back all year from things that don't go our way," Mitch Marner pointed out on Thursday night. "We've always showed up the next day and played our hearts out."
"We've been through adventures like this with this team before," Keefe noted. "We always come back with a better performance."
Toronto's game plan remains the same, but their ability to execute it remains in question – especially on the defensive side of things.
"We established a purpose to what we want to do on every shift and with the puck and with our structure," Keefe said. "We established that before the series began and in Games 1 and 2 and then got away from it. So, we have to get right back to it."
Keefe revealed that he and the coaching staff tried to get the players on track during intermissions and television timeouts last night, but to no avail.
"We really let those guys have their way on rushes," said Marner. "Too many three-on-twos, four-on-twos, Freddie [Andersen] came up big for us many times. Forwards and D, we have to talk more and cover each other better and stay above [the puck]. That's what that team does, they kill you on your turnovers."
The absence of defenceman Jake Muzzin, out for the series after that scary injury on Tuesday, was felt big time. His veteran presence could have helped calm things down and Travis Dermott, Muzzin's replacement alongside Justin Holl, got caught up ice on the tying goal in the third period.
"I thought that, as a team, we didn't help our defence as a group," said Keefe when asked specifically about Dermott. "And as a group our defence didn't help themselves."
Keefe is contemplating some lineup changes for tonight’s do-or-die game.
"We're discussing some shifts to our lineup," he acknowledged. "Obviously, I'm not going to talk about that right now."
GAME DAY SKATE: @LucaCelebre21 & @markhmasters discuss the production of the Maple Leafs’ 'Big Three' and what buttons head coach Sheldon Keefe needs to push to get his team ready to fend off elimination - https://t.co/bsJqMHmC3v#TSNHockey pic.twitter.com/JhoPUQXWFc— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) August 7, 2020
After stopping all 21 shots faced in relief last night, Elvis Merzlikins makes his first career Stanley Cup playoff start for the Jackets in Game 4.
"He's sure of himself," said Tortorella. "He has that personality that he's not afraid."
"He thrives in situations where maybe others don't," observed Foligno. "He loves the spotlight and loves the opportunity he's getting."
Merzlikins went 0-4-3 with an .889 save percentage to start the season, but since Christmas and especially after Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, the 26-year-old Latvian was lights out.
“Let's face it, when he first started in the National Hockey League he was awful," said Tortorella. "And then he grew pretty quickly, started understanding the League, started respecting the League, which was a very important bridge for him to cross. He has worked with [goalie coach] Manny [Legace] on the mental part of the game and has turned into a terrific player."
Merzlikins went 13-5-5 with a .935 save percentage down the stretch.
One thing the Leafs will need to be aware of is Merzlikins is more confident than Korpisalo when it comes to handling the puck.
"Certainly, he does play the puck a little bit better," Keefe agreed, "but we've been talking all series on managing the puck on our dumps and things like that, so nothing really new for us."
“He loves the spotlight...”— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) August 7, 2020
After shutting the door on the Leafs in Game 3, Elvis Merzlikins gets his first playoff start for #CBJ tonight: https://t.co/byZ9XG5JVL#TSNHockey pic.twitter.com/VTmEZufJhH
Tortorella was quick to pump the brakes when a reporter referred to Dubois' Game 3 explosion as a possible "coming-out party."
"Let's be careful about this 'coming-out party,’” the coach said. "I mean, this is one game. We get too excited about things too quickly. One of the things we're looking for from our players, and Luc being one of them, is consistency."
After last night's heroics, Dubois was asked about his heated moment with Tortorella in Game 2.
"Stuff like that happens," the 22-year-old said. "I played a good first game. Obviously the last game … I want to forget about that one, push it under the rug ... Coming into today, if you’re lacking motivation, I don't think you're in the right spot, playing the right sport. Everybody was motivated tonight. We went down 3-0, but everybody kept believing."
Projected Blue Jackets lineup for Game 4, per team Twitter account:
* Stats courtesy NaturalStatTrick