Maple Leafs find long elusive ‘killer instinct,’ push Canadiens to the brink

Jack Campbell picked up his first playoff shutout as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Montreal 4-0 to go up 3-1 in the series.

Previous incarnations of these Toronto Maple Leafs have all been guilty of letting their opponent off the mat in the post-season.

Let’s review the pain.

First there was that house-money series versus the mighty Washington Capitals in 2017. Rookies Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner surprised with a 2-1 series lead… and no one blamed anyone when the favourites stormed back to swipe the set in six. Just making the dance was gravy.

Disappointment hit different in 2018’s Game 7 at TD Garden. The young, skilled core helped mount leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 4-3 over the Boston Bruins under do-or-die stakes… only to fumble away a 7-4 loss in epic fashion.

In 2019, facing that same black-and-gold nemesis, the Leafs held three one-game leads in Round 1… and let each one slip through their fingers, bowing out in seven once more.

In 2020 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto seized a commanding 3-0 lead in the pivotal third game of a tied five-game set… only to cough away a 4-3 overtime loss and hand all control to the gritty underdogs.

This torturous pattern agonized, if not enraged, the fanbase.

Booted from the bubble the last time the sun was this bright, Auston Matthews dubbed it “killer instinct.” As in, the Maple Leafs must band together and develop one.

So, while it certainly appeared that an unrattled, more bloodthirsty mindset had emerged through the Leafs’ 2021 regular season — what with their claiming of Canada’s top seed — all juries remain out until playoff cases are heard.

“We’ve been able to put together long stretches of winning games, but this is a different time of year, of course, and a different challenge,” coach Sheldon Keefe said Tuesday, prior to puck drop on Game 4 at Bell Centre.

“It remains to be seen what we can do in this situation.”

Up 2-1 over the Habs, the Maple Leafs did something on this night we haven’t seen since two lockouts ago: They seized stranglehold on a playoff series, removing all but a sliver of doubt that Canada’s crown should belong to them or the Winnipeg Jets, a club flexing a killer instinct of its own.

Roundly defeating the offensively starved Montreal Canadiens 4-0 in their own barn for back-to-back road wins and a 3-1 series lead, the Maple Leafs charted home with a chance to clinch their first series win in 17 years.

Consider: Prior to Tuesday’s trend-buck, Toronto had lost its past seven Game 4s when leading 2-1.

This Game 4 was written in poetry.

First, Game 1 scratch Alex Galchenyuk, once a prized Montreal draft pick, created two beautiful passes to set up Toronto’s opening strikes, then pounded the exclamation-point empty-netter.

“To come into games and think about playing here in the past or any stuff like that is extra talk,” Galchenyuk said. “(I’m) just trying to keep it pretty simple in my head.”

It was a three-point redemption tale for a third-overall pick who’d cleared waivers this winter before being plucked in a low-consequence trade by his seventh NHL franchise and sent to the farm to find his game.

“The reports that came out of the AHL were nothing but positive — and that’s not always the case for guys that have had a lot of time in the NHL and have succeeded in the NHL,” Keefe said.

“He just has a great passion for the game. And I think he’s fit in very well, and he’s earned the respect of his teammates through the attitude that he’s brought and through the work ethic and how he’s played on the ice, most importantly. The guys like having him around and know he’s an important part of our team. A night like tonight is a good example of why.”

William Nylander — often criticized for wielding the kind of soft skill that doesn’t bloom come springtime — scored his fourth playoff goal in as many games and set a new career high with five points. Nylander now has as many goals in this series as the entire Canadiens roster.

“He’s showed a lot of determination. His board battles have been second to none on our team. He’s showing poise with the puck, which is hard to do at this time of year,” Jason Spezza raved.

“He’s more vocal on the bench. You can tell he’s really taken a leadership role with John (Tavares) down. He’s stepped up.”

Spezza himself was denied by Carey Price’s desperate paddle in Game 3 and stoned five-hole early, but broke through with a net-driving tap-in.

Alexander Kerfoot — Toronto’s emergency second-line centreman with the injured Tavares and Nick Foligno sidelined — elevated to the challenge with a three-point showing.

Jack Campbell, starting his first back-to-back of the year, supplied the first Leafs playoff shutout versus the Habs since Johnny Bower did the same in Game 2 of the 1967 Stanley Cup Final.

And Joe Thornton — the oldest NHLer standing, now that Zdeno Chara’s Capitals have been through the handshake line — scored in his 18th trip to the second season.

“This time of year, depth is important. Your big studs are going to get the job done every night, but it’s up to us bottom six to help and chip in. And tonight I thought we did that,” said Thornton, who admitted the Leafs “probably” would’ve been fine with a split in Montreal.

“But, you know, we felt greedy tonight.”

Toronto’s special teams, a sore spot coming into the series, have been spun to advantages. New No. 1 goalie Campbell is holding the fort. And the Canadiens’ belief is on the brink.

Lose a captain? Juggle the lineup?

Fall down 0-1 in the series and 0-1 in Game 2?

Get repeatedly posterized on odd-man chances by Price, “probably the greatest goalie of our generation,” per Spezza?

A lesser version of the Toronto Maple Leafs might’ve buckled under such circumstances.

This edition feels different.

Think you know how this year's playoffs will unfold? Before every round, from Round 1 to the Stanley Cup Final, predict the winners and number of games for each series and answer a few prop questions.

“Scoring, defending, checking — all the way through the lineup, the guys dug down here today. These back-to-backs are tough,” Keefe said. “I thought a lot of guys were actually better today than yesterday even.”

Yesterday is past.

Today’s Leafs are now demoralizing a struggling Montreal power play, turning their special teams into a strength and committing to selfless defence.

They are laughing off scrums, blocking shots with gusto and peppering a dialled-in Hall of Fame netminder until he has no choice but to crack.

“The stakes are so high, you can just see how much the players care, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Keefe said.

“Probably one of the most exciting parts of these playoffs is to see players find that within themselves to do those things.”

Game 5 goes Thursday. Toronto will have the added motivation of preventing Montreal from playing in front of the first group of Canadian fans to attend an NHL game since the pandemic.

“We’re going to see their absolute best next game, and we have to make sure that we’re ready to go,” Spezza said. “The fourth one’s the hardest to get.”

You don’t have to tell a Maple Leafs fan that.

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