TORONTO — They spoke about how this time it was going to be different.
They placed faith in the buy-in shown during voluntary workouts and the opportunity to step back and critically examine their roller-coaster season. Days before the playoffs began, Kyle Dubas said he’d seen signs that his Toronto Maple Leafs matured.
And then they grabbed control of a swing game in their Stanley Cup qualifying series with Columbus and squandered a golden opportunity. Not only did the Leafs blow a 3-0 lead on Thursday night, they left themselves with just 21 hours to recover from a stunning Blue Jackets comeback led by a Pierre-Luc Dubois hat trick.
“I feel like the game just got away from us right from the start,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said, pointedly, after the 4-3 overtime loss. “I didn’t like our game in the first period. I didn’t like our game at 1-0, I didn’t like our game at 2-0, 3-0. We just got what we deserved today. I thought we reverted back to a lot of really bad habits.
“We didn’t have any real purpose or plan to our game today, we were just making it up as we go along.”
They get right back at it with Game 4 on Friday night.
Let’s get the preamble out of the way early so we can cut immediately to the heart of the matter: Yes, this is merely a best-of-five, played in the middle of the summer, amid a pandemic, following an unexpected 140-day break in the season.
There are mitigating circumstances here that will naturally caution against drawing too many conclusions.
But there are also issues here that span multiple seasons, head coaches and versions of this roster. The Leafs, it would seem, struggle with prosperity — and what better opportunity could they ask for to start burying that reputation than a dominant bounce-back victory over Columbus in Game 2 followed by a 3-0 lead midway through Game 3?
They were getting contributions from everyone … until they weren’t.
Cody Ceci scored the first short-handed goal and first playoff goal of his career. William Nylander broke through on the power play. Teenager Nick Robertson hammered a one-timer through Joonas Korpisalo for his first career NHL goal.
You obviously expect an opponent to push while down 3-0 in that type of game, but the deck was stacked heavily in Toronto’s favour. The Blue Jackets are short on elite offensive options and they’d gone days since last beating Frederik Andersen. But they mounted a push and didn’t meet much resistance after Dubois got it back to 3-1 entering the third period.
“We really let those guys have their ways on rushes,” Leafs winger Mitch Marner observed. “Too many 3-on-2’s, 4-on-2’s, Freddie came up big for us many times. I think our forwards and ‘D,’ we’ve got to talk more and cover each other better and stay above [the puck]. I mean that’s what that team does — they kill you on your turnovers if you give them too many on the night and they didn’t miss on their opportunities when they had them.”
It was Leafs captain John Tavares who turned the puck over in the offensive zone in overtime. The play went quickly back up ice where Dubois got behind Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie, and beat Andersen with a backhander over the glove.
Toronto had its own chances to end the game before the clock at Scotiabank Arena was frozen with 1:36 remaining in the first overtime period.
But it also probably shouldn’t have allowed things to get that far to begin with.
Dubas dubbed them the “Jekyll and Hyde” Leafs in February and they remain that way until proven otherwise. They can dominate one night and lose a game to an emergency goaltender pulled out of the upper bowl two days later.
With the season hanging in the balance, Keefe has no choice but to believe the good version of his team will show up Friday.
“Yeah, we’re going to learn a great deal but I think we’ve already learned this,” he said. “We’ve been through adventures like this with this team before, we’ve always come back with a great performance. So tomorrow will be no different.”
It’s going to be a long, agonizing off-season if he’s wrong.
Yes, the Leafs are only down 2-1 in a best-of-five series they’re still very capable of winning, but it shouldn’t be lost on anyone how important each playoff opportunity is with this kind of core. And Toronto still hasn’t managed to get the car out of the parking lot, let alone cruising down the highway toward the big destination.
“We’ve got to regroup here,” Keefe said. “This is what playoff hockey’s all about: The emotion, the swings, the momentum. That’s the best part of playoffs here, so a chance to regroup and come back at it tomorrow and be a better version of ourselves than we were today is an exciting part for me.
“So we’ll get to work on that.”
The clock ticks loudly.