Maple Leafs' core delivers big moments in 'a hell of a hockey game'

Auston Matthews scored the third-period go-ahead goal and William Nylander chipped in three points as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round series.

TORONTO – In a hockey city this fragile and this fierce, any midwinter Tuesday in Columbus or random Wednesday in St. Paul could turn into a noisy referendum on the nucleus of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This foundation laid out by a young general manager who made multimillionaires of talented twentysomethings who’d never so much as won a single playoff round: Is it sturdy enough?

The character of those athletes: Do they have what it really takes? Can they dig down deep enough when the light burns hottest?

Let’s name them. Auston Matthews. Mitchell Marner. John Tavares. William Nylander. Morgan Rielly. Is this a true contending core?

Most nights, our wild leaps to conclusions — as fans, as media, as outsiders — are simply that. We’re stabbing judgments in the dark, guessing at that which we have not seen.

And so, limping off an utter no-show in Game 4 at Tampa Bay, and scrambling their way through an underwhelming first period at home in a pivotal Game 5, those dusty old doubts began to encroach.

Down 2-0 after one period Tuesday, in a series where every lead had swelled into a guaranteed win, Jason Spezza — the sage 38-year-old skating for his hometown and minimum wage, possibly for his final tour — spoke up. He addressed a sinking group at intermission.

His vintage rallying cry?

“It wasn't good enough. We had to get battling and skating. That was the gist,” Nylander relayed, following Toronto’s thrill ride of a 4-3 comeback victory. “When he says something, everyone listens."

The first was, at best, troublesome.

The second was encouraging. 

And the third? 

Well, we wouldn’t blame you if it stole your breath away.

“Key times, big game like this, you need your best people to step up and make a difference. They certainly did that,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said in the exhale.

“It’s a terrific sign and bodes well for us.”

In swiping a 3-2 series advantage over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Maple Leafs — and their emotionally boomeranging fan base — steered the roller coaster as only they know how.

And what a ride it was.

“Two good teams going at it, back and forth,” Tavares said. “That’s a hell of a hockey game. Hell of an atmosphere.”

Not unlike Sunday’s stumble in Florida, Toronto was discombobulated through the first 20 minutes.

This time, Cup-hoister Steven Stamkos waited until the champs’ second shot to blast the opening goal past Jack Campbell.

And when Norris finalist Victor Hedman’s power-play sifter bulged the net 52 seconds later, the hopeful Scotiabank Arena faithful turned deathly quiet.

Borderline silent.

They had witnessed the Leafs surrender two goals before registering two measly shots of their own.

“One team has been really going, and one team has not” is how Keefe had summed up the first four games of this seesaw set.

Entirely and familiarly, it appeared Toronto would be the one not going.

The Leafs were outshot silly in the first frame, 14-4. They were ineffective on three power-plays and disinterested in the mini battles.

“Shoot! The! Puck!” roared the restless thousands.

The referendum was unfolding in real time, with real consequences in the balance.

Following a morning of swearing they had grasped how strictly the officials would call the rules, Nylander committed a poor holding infraction 200 feet from Campbell’s cage. Marner hooked Ryan McDonagh in the Tampa zone six seconds into a Toronto 5-on-4.

“Every game has kinda been called the same, so we should have an understanding for it now,” Marner said.

Yet they didn’t show it.

Heading into the second, the Leafs desperately needed a break — and got one, in the form of Tampa’s second too-many-men penalty of the night.

Toronto’s power-play snapped in place, and Tavares popped on the board when he deflected a Nylander shot through Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The crowd awakened, alert for the comeback.

“We talked about that John’s moment was going to come,” Keefe said.

“They started to look tired, and that gave our team life. We could see it, feel it on the bench. Guys were talking about it: 'Just keep coming.' I think that gave us life and confidence.

“The crowd really got into it from there, and we didn’t stop.”

Grinding down low, Tavares set up Rielly to tie the contest early in the third, and Nylander rode a giddy wave into a laser of a shot that signalled the first lead change of the entire series.

“Great shot by Willy,” Tavares said.

Ryan McDonagh knotted the game back up with an absolute bomb of a slapper from the circle.

But a Marner–Auston Matthews 2-on-1 rush with 6:06 remaining on the clock resulted in a low Marner shot-pass off Vasilevskiy’s pad, a Matthews no-doubter rebound, and a double-windmill fist-pump celebration so emphatic it could’ve knocked out a heavyweight champion cold.

“A huge goal. Deserves a big celly,” Nylander said.

All five members of the Maple Leafs’ scrutinized core came up with a goal, a nifty primary assist, or both, on the biggest night of the season.

A game in which they would be rightly judged, for better or curse.

“I don’t think tonight is going to matter if we don’t take the next step. The hardest step,” Keefe said.

“I certainly believe, in the event we are able to get this done, we’ll absolutely look back on tonight as a huge moment for our team.”

An even grander moment awaits Thursday in Tampa.

Fox’s Fast 5

• Keefe flipped Mark Giordano onto the top power-play unit and dropped Rielly to the second unit in Period 2. The wily veteran promptly contributed an assist on Tavares’s PP goal.

• Campbell has Nick Paul’s number this series. Paul has more shots (nine) and scoring chances (12) than any other Lightning player still looking to get on the scoresheet.

• Patrick Maroon, ladies and gentlemen:

• Nylander has 17 points in his past 16 playoff games.

• Patrick Marleau on Matthews and Marner in his Players’ Tribune retirement column: “Watching them and their love of the game made me fall in love with hockey all over again. I have no doubt that those guys will win a Cup one day, and when they do, I know they’ll remember all those mini-stick battles in the basement.”

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