Jekyll-and-Hyde Leafs still searching for identity in face of elimination

Pierre-Luc Dubois finished off a hat-trick with the OT winner to give the Columbus Blue Jackets a 4-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 3.

TORONTO — What must they be thinking?

Waking up this morning sore and perhaps a little tired. Trying to figure out if it was all just a bad dream.

There might be some benefit for the Toronto Maple Leafs in jumping straight back into a game day with their season on the line after letting a three-goal lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets slip away.

No one will know for sure until the puck drops at 8 p.m. ET Friday and we see if it’s Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde who takes the ice at Scotiabank Arena wearing the white sweaters.

The most interesting thing about all of this is that the Leafs don’t know themselves. The front office and coaching staff have spent considerable time looking under the hood and running diagnostics, but can’t be confident from one day to the next in what they’ll get.

"I think obviously the objective stuff – the talent level of the group – there’s never been a question," general manager Kyle Dubas said before this qualifying round series began. "It’s been the maturing and the mindset of the group that we know we have to take some strides in."

The contrast with Columbus is striking. The Blue Jackets fundamentally know what they are. They’ve got more veteran players, sure, but they’ve also got a consistent way of doing things.

John Tortorella made an interesting comment after Pierre-Luc Dubois finished off his hat trick with the overtime winner just before midnight. He said he wanted his players to enjoy the victory even with less than 21 hours to prepare for a potential elimination game.

"I trust them," said Tortorella. "They’ll be ready to play tomorrow."

Contrast that with how Sheldon Keefe must have been feeling.

You could sense his frustration during a post-game Zoom call that the NHL kept to just five questions and less than three minutes. I’m sure Keefe believes in his players’ talent and their level of care and commitment, but I sincerely doubt they’ve earned anything close to his full trust.

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Even without Jake Muzzin, their most stout defender, a 3-0 lead should have been a sure thing. Three of the four Columbus goals in Game 3 originated with a Leafs turnover in the offensive zone.

It would be somewhat understandable if they were getting worn down on the cycle against a heavy opponent, but it’s quite another when puck management and poor defensive pinches become an issue during a crucial playoff game where you’ve built a healthy lead.

Toronto surrendered 12 rush chances and 24 slot shots, according to Sportlogiq, after giving up nine and nine in Game 2 and eight and 14 in Game 1. That extra 18-plus minutes of overtime isn’t enough to account for the difference.

"Tough to explain, but that’s part of the deal, right?" said Keefe. "That’s why it’s a playoff series and every day’s a new day, just like it was after Game 1, just like it was after Game 2 and just like it is here.

"We’ve got to put this behind us and be ready to come back tomorrow."

Heading into Game 4, Toronto has established an edge in this series in the areas it prioritizes. The Leafs have 52.4 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts and 56.4 per cent of the expected goals, according to naturalstattrick.com. They’ve even enjoyed an edge in specialty teams – with the only power-play goal of the series, plus Cody Ceci’s unlikely (and fortunate) short-handed strike on Thursday night.

They’ve run up against quality goaltending from Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, who came in midway through Thursday’s game and stopped all 21 shots he faced, and are shooting just 3.53 per cent in this series at even strength as a result.

That’s a sharp decline from the 8.57 per cent the Leafs shot collectively through 70 regular-season games, but the fundamental challenge with the playoffs is you don’t have time for indicators like that to normalize.

No, faced with sample-size issues, you need to control absolutely everything you can control. When you build a lead it’s even more important to prioritize puck management in order to prevent odd-man scoring opportunities that put yourself at risk for a collapse.

Incredibly, after a summer training camp where improved defensive play was basically the only theme discussed, the Leafs failed to do that with a big lead in a huge game against a team that scored fewer goals this season than any of the other 23 invited back for the Stanley Cup tournament.

"I thought that as a team we didn’t help our defence as a group and as a group our defence didn’t help themselves," said Keefe.

Now all the Leafs can control is how they pick themselves up and respond in Game 4.

They will attempt to find solace in all of the bounce-back performances they mustered throughout this most unusual season while blocking out memories about why they so frequently found themselves in a position where they needed to respond.

On short rest and in a short series, Toronto must seize the day.

Because if they end up losing this series in this way … well, let’s put off that conversation for at least another 24 hours, shall we?

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