TORONTO — When your team loses in the playoffs, the post-game interviews on Zoom start almost immediately. Without any celebratory ritual involving the game puck or a speech from the coach to worry about, the priority is to pack up and move on as soon as possible.
That’s why Auston Matthews found himself staring into the camera within 10 minutes of Nick Suzuki extending this first-round series. Suzuki was still sitting on the Canadiens bench in full equipment taking questions from Kyle Bukauskas about his overtime winner when Matthews began discussing a wild Toronto Maple Leafs comeback that fell short and an opportunity to close out this best-of-seven that had gone unrealized.
A welt on his left cheek offered the only hint he’d just come through his fifth playoff game in eight days. He could not possibly have seemed more unbothered unless a Canadiens defenceman was trying to rough him up in a post-whistle scrum.
Asked what was on his mind heading back to Montreal, Matthews said: “We’re going [there] to win a game.”
Given the history at play, the demeanour of Toronto’s top weapon was noteworthy. Even ahead 3-2 with Game 6 on deck, there could have been hints of frustration or concern coming from one of the Leafs players now batting 0-for-5 with a chance to wrap up a playoff series.
That’s particularly true in the case of Matthews, who is counted on to score and has seen the percentages swing against him since capturing the Rocket Richard Trophy. He’s fired 25 shots on goal in this series — eight more than any player on either team — and only beaten Carey Price once.
What’s more, linemates Zach Hyman and Mitch Marner are similarly snakebitten. That trio has been a load at 5-on-5, combining for 47 shots but only the one Matthews goal in Game 2 and Hyman’s squibbler on Thursday night.
They are either being stymied by an all-time great goaltender or on the wrong end of puck luck or some combination of the two. The Hyman-Matthews-Marner line is giving up next to nothing in the defensive end and attacking with abandon. They are a volcano ready to erupt.
“I think that we’re all over it,” said Hyman.
“We’re hunting pucks [well] and trying to stay above them, forcing turnovers, and just trying to attack the net as much as possible,” said Matthews. “We’re getting chances. … I think we just want to continue to play the way we’ve been and just continue to give our team momentum.”
Sticking with it will be an important theme as the Leafs head into Game 6 with their margin for error shrunk. Stylistically and statistically, they’ve been the better team in this series. But they also didn’t play up to their usual level for enough of Thursday’s game — seeing rookie defenceman Rasmus Sandin fail to execute two puck retrievals that immediately led to goals against while falling behind 3-0, before Alex Galchenyuk got burned throwing the puck into the middle of the ice for a ghastly turnover that opened the door for Suzuki’s overtime winner.
“We got ourselves in a hole there,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “Is it part of the learning curve? Perhaps. I mean it certainly looked that way.”
It is no small matter that this team is trying to advance beyond a playoff round for the first time in 17 years. This is the fifth straight post-season appearance for the nucleus of the group and William Nylander, in particular, seems to have absorbed the teachings of prior defeats.
He’s got four goals and seven points in the series and will have gone to bed Thursday with visions of a couple glorious chances that didn’t get past Price. The looks were there and Keefe acknowledged afterwards that he should have found even more ice time for Playoff Willy.
Toronto is ahead 15-8 on aggregate score overall, dropping Game 1 on a Paul Byron short-handed marker in the third period and rallying for a three-goal comeback in Game 5 before losing in overtime.
“When we have played well we’ve been in control of games pretty well,” said Keefe. “We’ve got lots of reasons to be confident and lots of reasons to believe in our group. At the same time, we just got another reminder today that Montreal is going to make it real difficult and that they’re a very good team with very strong goaltending and that in itself gives them lots of belief.”
Beyond Travis Dermott coming back in the lineup for Sandin, there probably won’t be much in the way of a shakeup for Game 6. Assuming Nick Foligno remains unavailable due to injury, even a tinkerer like Keefe might keep his forward ranks intact.
If that’s the case, it will be all about revisiting the strategy that’s brought some dominant stretches in the series.
With 2,500 fans due at the Bell Centre for an historic Saturday night — the first sporting event in Canada with a meaningful audience since the start of the pandemic — the Leafs need to show an unwavering commitment to their game plan and not let the moment be too grand.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve had some fans so I think it’ll be exciting,” said Matthews. “I mean it’s another opportunity to obviously close out this series. We have to have a much better process and a much better start than we had tonight if we want to do that.”
And they need to avoid a Game 7 at all costs.