There’s ample reason to believe these aren’t the same old Toronto Maple Leafs. During a Game 3 thriller where they had no business defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was the new guys who elevated their game before Morgan Rielly, Toronto’s longest-tenured player, emerged as the overtime hero.
And through the opening 40 minutes, it looked like the Maple Leafs squandered the momentum generated from Rielly’s series-changing goal, getting toasted by the Lightning in every aspect of the game. You could blame the Core Four — Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were completely blanketed by Tampa Bay’s shutdown line of Brandon Hagel, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn — who scored two goals and were all-around menaces after going the entire 2022 postseason without getting on the board. William Nylander took an asinine penalty that generated the power play where Killorn opened the scoring, then failed to close out Mikhail Sergachev on Tampa’s second goal. John Tavares, who scored a hat-trick in Game 2, was nowhere to be found.
Trailing 4-1 entering the second intermission, previous versions of the Maple Leafs would’ve been left for dead. Facing the stomach-churning prospect of heading back to Toronto with the series split at two games apiece, the Core Four submitted their finest hour as members of the Maple Leafs, erasing a three-goal deficit. Some suggested that Alexander Kerfoot should be the odd man out when Michael Bunting returns from this three-game suspension, but they’re deleting the evidence now as the winger snapped out of a slump to deflect a Mark Giordano point shot to complete the comeback.
The Passion is well and alive and you have to credit the team’s highest-paid, most visible players, along with Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe for the drastic turnaround.
Hagel, Cirelli and Killorn shadowed Matthews, Marner and Jarnkrok and not only alleviated their impact, but outright won the matchup. Killorn scored two goals, registered a game-high seven shots, six coming at 5-on-5, while Hagel and Cirelli made it impossible for the Maple Leafs’ superstars to gain any pace with their zone entries. Tampa Bay clogged up the neutral zone and appeared determined to reduce a game between two of the NHL’s most skilled teams into a contest from the Dead Puck Era.
Matthew Knies was outstanding during the opening forty minutes and quite literally saved a goal, clearing a puck that had tricked past Ilya Samsonov off the goal-line. There’s no way he’s going to be removed from the lineup and he’s earned the full trust of Keefe and his staff. You don’t want your 20-year-old rookie, two weeks removed from playing college hockey, to be your best player, and Keefe had to go back to the drawing board. He won the tactical matchup in Game 2 and couldn’t afford to get outfoxed by Jon Cooper again.
The result was supposed to be academic, the Maple Leafs were merely playing for pride after getting shellacked by the Lightning. Tampa Bay controlled 66 percent of the expected goals and scoring chances at 5-on-5 throughout the contest. But for the second consecutive game, the Maple Leafs stole a game on the road. And it was because Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares and Rielly had some of their finest half-hours as Maple Leafs.
“We believe in this team to do some crazy things,” Marner said post-game via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox.
Matthews was the primary engine behind the comeback. Nylander received a feed from T.J. Brodie and cut menacingly through centre, then dropped the puck back to Marner, who drew three defenders with him. Matthews was wide-open and promptly buried a low shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy, cutting Tampa’s lead to 4-2. OK, so one adjustment worked, but there was still reason for Leafs Nation to proceed cynically.
Although he won’t earn votes for the Hart this year, Matthews has still been among the NHL’s best players this season, and his underlying numbers still prove he’s one of the league’s most dangerous offensive threats. You don’t need stats to prove Matthews’ impact on a night like this. He has all-world hand-eye coordination, which he displayed almost casually, tipping a point shot from Nylander, a goal that erased the incredulity surrounding a potential comeback. Matthews was heating up and Nylander, whose mistakes appeared to be compounding, reverted back to the form that allowed him to have a career year.
Keefe continued to shake up his combinations and tossed out the Ontario Line — Tavares, Marner and Ryan O’Reilly for a critical offensive zone faceoff. It paid off to great effect. Marner won a puck battle against two Lightning defenders and Rielly seized the opportunity, wiring a seeing-eye wrist shot through traffic caused by O’Reilly and Tavares. Rielly has played the best hockey of his career since Game 2 and it’s only fitting that the player who oversaw some of the dreariest years of the millennium responded with another seismic goal.
As we wrote in Game 2, the hallmark of brilliance is taking the spectacular for granted, and Marner authored his fourth consecutive multi-point game. At the time of this filing, Marner leads all NHL players with 10 playoff points, and the Maple Leafs’ MVP continues to be the engine that makes the team tick, even if other members of the Core Four have ascended into the spotlight. If the simple idea dictates that you need your best players to be your best players, Toronto followed this formula to victory, even if it took 40 minutes to get the party started.
Marner - 2 points
Matthews - 2 goals
O'Reilly - 1 point
Nylander - 3 points
Rielly - 1 goal
That's from the start of the 3rd, straight through to OT
Before the 3rd period, only ONE of these players had a point.
That's the big stars getting it done.
— Adam Wylde (@AdamWylde) April 25, 2023
So it’s only fitting that after the Core Four — plus Rielly — engineered the comeback, Alexander Kerfoot – with many calling for his imminent replacement — tipped home a point shot for the game-winner, with Knies in his immediate vicinity.
The Passion was placed on hold. Matthews’ first goal restored The Passion. His second goal sent Leafs Nation into a frenzy. Rielly’s game-tying goal sent Maple Leafs fans into a form of radical self-belief that this year would be different. Kerfoot’s winner was confirmation.
There may be better individual games statistically — we’ve seen it from Tavares and Marner already — but given what was at stake, given the difficulty of knocking off the three-time conference champions in three consecutive games, twice on the road, while erasing a three-goal deficit in the span of 25 minutes, this has to be considered the finest hour for the core.
People that don’t watch sports never get to experience this feeling pic.twitter.com/Hvh0MdgbhQ
— Jomboy Media (@JomboyMedia) April 25, 2023
Toronto rose from the dead for one of its biggest victories in franchise history. It’s arguably the biggest win of the Matthews-Marner era, and it’s fitting they received an incredibly clutch performance from the players who take the brunt of unrelenting criticism when the team fails to meet expectations. The Passion is back in full force and the Core Four, along with the new additions, are one win away from exorcising their greatest demons.