Game 7 a defining moment for Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner

Faizal Khamisa & Mike Futa discuss what the Maple Leafs X-Factor is for Game 7 in a crucial do-or-die situation against the Canadiens.

TORONTO -- This is the moment of truth for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And it’s a defining moment for Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner, the twin pillars of hope most responsible for the sky-high expectations being challenged by this unexpected Game 7.

“They know the responsibility they have to the team,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe, with the focus intensifying on their performance in this first-round series with Montreal.

While there is no questioning their talent or level of care, there are still questions about the program they provide the foundation for. They were answered rather emphatically during a regular season where the Leafs became kings of the North Division because of Matthews’s ruthless goal-scoring ability and Marner’s point-producing magic.

But old doubts have resurfaced as the Leafs missed on two opportunities to close out the Canadiens while seeing their biggest stars held to just one goal through six games of the series.

That’s introduced a level of chance no one in Toronto can be comfortable with. The Canadiens are a deep team and have been getting Carey Price’s best, but they entered this best-of-seven as such heavy underdogs because they don’t have singular talents to match Matthews or Marner.

And yet they find themselves with an opportunity to deliver the dagger on Monday night.

The level of pressure on Toronto’s top players is immense after four consecutive first-round or play-in-round eliminations. This is the kind of situation where they are called on to make the difference. Matthews and Marner are coming off an underwhelming Game 6, but any talk of them being a complete disaster in the series is overstated.

They’ve yet to be on the ice for a 5-on-5 goal against and have generated a boatload of offensive looks. Matthews has 32 shots in the series -- 14 more than any member of the Canadiens -- and he’s sitting at 3.72 individual expected goals, according to naturalstattrick.com.

The only problem is he just has one.

Marner hasn’t scored in the playoffs since Game 1 of the 2019 series with Boston and compounded his offensive frustrations by taking a crucial puck over the glass penalty during Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss. He sat in the penalty box with his head between his legs.

Should the Leafs fail to advance again, the two highly paid young stars will face the most heat. You’d bet on them breaking through if they were guaranteed another 10 games in June. But all they can count on is the one scheduled for tonight.

“Those guys are guys who want to score every night,” said Zach Hyman, their linemate. “I think that we have to continue to do the right things and stick with the process and we’re going to break through here. I know those guys put a lot of pressure on themselves and it’s going to be a big night for them.”

The dynamic of this series shifted considerably when John Tavares was stretchered off after 10 minutes. One of the keys to Toronto’s success is creating matchup problems for opponents by deploying two elite centres and Montreal has been able to focus its defensive efforts entirely on the Matthews line, with Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot and Phillip Danault countering him for roughly 60 per cent of his even-strength minutes in this series.

But while that is a major mitigating factor in what’s happened here it won’t provide a worthy excuse if Toronto falls short.

Marner and Matthews were both top-five scorers this season and Keefe began this series by declaring that he was comfortable with them in every potential matchup, saying “I’m not going to be hiding our best people from anyone.”

He was willing to bet on his stars battling through and carrying the day.

Matthews delivered a big Game 2 performance in this series when it was needed after Tavares went down, scoring a goal and two assists. He rarely went more than two games between goals all year and has now gone four. Marner has been kept to four assists in the series -- fine production, but not the kind of production he’s paid for.

“There’s lots of moments where those guys have had chances to make the difference,” said Keefe. “They’ve got to trust that those chances will be there again and they’ve got to make good on them and through all of that they’ve got to continue to play hard and play structured and play smart and all those kinds of things.

“Certainly we need everyone to be at their best [in Game 7] and our best players in particular.”

Unless or until this group of Maple Leafs reaches a Stanley Cup Final, they won’t play a game any bigger than this one.

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