May 25, 2024

Maple Leafs prep for Game 7 test with Auston Matthews iffy


Toronto has willed its way back into the first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against Boston with consecutive elimination-game wins to force a decisive Game 7 in Boston on Saturday.

But the Leafs’ path from trailing the Bruins 3-1 into a do-or-die, winner-take-all outing might have been the easy part. What comes next — actually closing out Boston and advancing to the second round for only the second time since 2004 — will be an entirely different battle.

“All we’ve done is dig ourselves out of a hole that we created,” Sheldon Keefe said on Friday. “We haven’t accomplished nearly enough of what we set out to do. Now the real test comes, and the real opportunity.”

What’s less clear is whether Toronto’s best player will be back in the lineup for Game 7. Auston Matthews has been sidelined by what the Leafs deemed a “lingering” illness since being pulled from the third period of Game 4. He’s been skating with Toronto’s assistant coaches since then, but Matthews was ruled out for both Games 5 and 6. There appeared to be hope that Matthews might return for Game 7.

“There’s been progress,” Keefe said Friday. “He skated again here today, but no determination on his availability.”

Toronto has had to shuffle its forwards throughout the series already to accommodate William Nylander missing Games 1, 2 and 3 with an undisclosed injury. It was Nylander who powered the Leafs to a 2-1 victory in Game 6 Thursday by scoring both goals.

Keefe noted how the Leafs haven’t faced an opponent that’s desperate to keep their own season alive. When he reflected on Toronto’s situation Thursday, Keefe said it felt like the Leafs had just played two Game 7s to reach the real thing. And when they actually do, for once, the Bruins would have no excuse not to match Toronto’s level of urgency.

Boston coach Jim Montgomery has been vocal with his frustration over how the Bruins came out in Game 5 and Game 6, being outshot by a combined 23-3 in those first periods. The Bruins’ top skaters have also been quiet, prompting Montgomery to publicly call out star winger David Pastrnak after Game 6 for needing to “step up.”

There’s pressure — and painful history — for both teams entering Game 7. Toronto is 1-4 against Boston in series that have gone seven games, including back-to-back first-round defeats in 2018 and 2019. Meanwhile, the Bruins would live in infamy with a loss on Saturday as the only NHL, MLB or NBA team in history to blow consecutive 3-1 series leads in the playoffs (Boston was up by that margin over Florida in the first-round last year before eventually being jettisoned in Game 7).

While Montgomery can acknowledge the issues Boston has dealt with, he’s adamant the Bruins are taking steps to address those problems.

“We’re doing some things already to change what we hope [will create] a different start,” Montgomery said. “I’m an opportunistic, positive person. Even though I’m mad and frustrated at times, I look for ways to get better and to come out of it. How are we going to get better?”

That’s exactly the question he’s put toward Pastrnak and the rest of Boston’s premier players. Pastrnak has generated two goals and four points in the series but was missing from the scoresheet in Games 5 and 6. Brad Marchand has also failed to be the difference-maker he was earlier in the series — producing three goals and eight points — when Boston had a chance to send Toronto packing.

Montgomery said the message he relayed postgame Thursday about Pastrnak is the same one he brought to the Bruins’ room.

“I talked to [Pastrnak] right after the game about it,” Montgomery said. “I talked to him about it during the game. Pasta and I have a really healthy, communicative relationship, and he’s ready to go.”

Toronto’s power play has not been ready to go. It’s 1-for-20 in the playoffs.

Keefe made light of how ineffective the man advantage has been while declaring it still had time to make a comeback, too.

“We’re not going to decline the power play, no,” Keefe said jokingly. “We’ve changed things a lot. It’s a combination of giving the guys a really good recipe and a good plan and making adjustments, but also showing trust and confidence and faith and belief. As you’ve seen in our 5-on-5 game and our penalty kill the last two games. You see the confidence that comes through belief. The power play doesn’t have that right now. No better time for it to happen than Game 7. You talk about moments — the power play can come through for us at a moment like this, you can quickly forget anything that’s happened beforehand.”

What the Leafs don’t want is to lose their edge — more specifically, the tenacity that’s put the Bruins on the ropes with one last bout in Boston.

“We still have work to do,” Morgan Rielly said. “Not much changes to our approach or our mindset. We’re in a position where, if we win, we’re alive; if we lose, we’re dead. That’s where we’ve been the last two games and I think we’ve performed well under those circumstances.”



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