'Vibrant' Maple Leafs hit the road with another chance to close out Lightning

·5 min read

TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe and his players were set to head to the airport and board a plane they would have preferred see stay on the tarmac.

The Maple Leafs had allowed a chance to close out the Tampa Bay Lightning in their first-round playoff series slip away less than 24 hours earlier.

Familiar themes kept Toronto from once again getting out from under a generation of post-season torment, along with a more-recent narrative of not being able to put away opponents on the ropes.

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The Leafs dropped to 0-10 with the chance to send a team home for the summer in the Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner era Thursday when the Lightning fought back from an early deficit and survived another late Toronto charge to pick up a 4-2 victory that forced Game 6 in the best-of-seven matchup.

Tampa also took the play to Toronto to start proceedings for the fourth time in five contests before the Leafs turned it on late, similar to their overtime triumphs in Games 3 and 4 in Florida.

But unlike those dramatic nights, there wasn't enough runway left.

Now the Leafs hit the road looking to once again chase away playoff ghosts that include six straight series losses since 2017, a blown 3-1 lead in 2021, a failure to advance in any fashion since 2004, and a Stanley Cup drought that stands at 55 years.

There was lots of baggage as Toronto packed up — and not just the equipment in the storage hold.

But Keefe, the team's fourth-year head coach, was encouraged by the energy from his players on a day they hoped would be about basking in the glow of a victory the Original Six franchise hasn't tasted in nearly two decades.

"Before you walk into the meeting, you're always getting a pretty good sense of where the group is at based on the volume and the energy and the chatter of the room," Keefe said Friday of the scene at the club's practice facility before travelling south. "It was vibrant, so that's a really good sign.

"It's a mindset day, making sure we're in the right frame of mind, recognizing we still have a great opportunity here to win a series."

The Leafs have two more cracks at it, but a city and fan base that have seen epic collapses in the past woke up with an uncomfortable feeling after the first of three opportunities went begging Thursday night.

"We have another chance to finish this off," said winger Calle Jarnkrok. "We're feeling good.

"We haven't shown them our best yet."

Toronto has tended to dip its toe in the water instead of diving against Tampa, which downed its Atlantic Division rival in seven games last spring on the way to a third straight appearance in the final.

The Leafs poured it on late in Games 3, 4 and 5, but finding a three-period formula has been elusive.

"The game builds throughout 60 minutes as the situation arises because time starts to tick away," captain John Tavares said. "The urgency picks up on both sides, but no doubt we want to come out and take control of the game."

A couple keys for Toronto will be breaking the puck out better to relieve Tampa pressure and then finding a way through the neutral zone to get the Leafs' cycle game going.

The battle-tested Lightning, of course, also have a say in the matter with Game 6 set for Saturday at Amalie Arena.

"Make the plays when they're there and skating off the puck and giving the outlets and the options," Tavares said. "Especially when guys are under pressure, whether it's our (defencemen) or pucks are on the walls and those contested battles.

"That execution helps slow them up and lets us get our game going into their end."

The Leafs would have gladly taken a 3-2 series lead when the puck dropped for Game 1, after getting blown out in the opener, and when they were trailing late in Games 3 and 4.

"We've put ourselves in a good spot," Keefe said. "The guys recognize that. Based on their mood, there's excitement to get out on the road and get back to it."

Toronto will soon learn if those good vibes mean anything.

BUNTING'S STATUS

Keefe said winger Michael Bunting, suspended three games for an illegal check to the head on Tampa defenceman Erik Cernak in the series curtain-raiser, could draw into the lineup after sitting out Thursday as a healthy scratch.

"He would bring energy, both in how he plays and also the fact that he hasn't played," said the coach. "The series, as it goes on, weighs on everybody in terms of the grind.

"Having a guy that hasn't played come in can give us a boost."

MAROON HIT

Keefe only took four questions after Thursday's loss, but was asked Friday about a hit from behind by Tampa forward Pat Maroon on Toronto defenceman Mark Giordano late in the second period of Game 5.

The 39-year-old blueliner stayed down for a while before returning for the third. Maroon was assessed a two-minute roughing penalty.

"Any time there's hits in the numbers, you're concerned with it," Keefe said. "There's been a few of those from that player in particular in this series.

"When you see it and a player smash his head off the glass, that's a tough look."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2023.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press