SUNRISE, Fla. — With the Toronto Maple Leafs skating on a cliff’s edge and previously loyal supporters jumping off the bandwagon like lemmings following the club’s uninspired Game 3 loss, William Nylander made a curious prediction ahead of a do-or-die Game 4.
“I think it will be fun tomorrow,” Nylander smiled Tuesday, after what was in danger of being the final practice for some in the organization.
Fun? Fighting to keep this wobbly ship afloat? Why fun?
“Because that’s when you have to play your best,” Nylander replied.
Willy certainly has his own style, even when he’s calling his shot.
But the best Maple Leafs forward in this series backed up his words, backchecking like a beast, skating with purpose, and cracking open a knotty 0-0 contest by pouncing on a fortunate bounce off an official’s leg and beating Sergei Bobrovsky.
This time, Toronto extended its lead to 2-0, thanks to a well-screened Mitch Marner point shot.
And unlike games 2 and 3, Toronto locked up its lead thanks to an all-out defensive commitment and some poised goaltending by rookie Joseph Woll.
Sure, the Leafs only scored two goals total — for the sixth consecutive playoff game. But those two goals, off the sticks of a couple snakebit Core Four shooters, were enough to escape the edge of the Everglades with a 2-1 victory and force a fifth game in Toronto Friday night.
“I thought it was our best effort of the season all the way through, from start to finish. There was no real letup,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Our competitiveness defensively and our urgency defensively was the best it’s been all year. It was an unbelievable job by our guys here tonight.”
After shrugging through too many periods of regular-season effort in Round 2, the Maple Leafs played with pride Wednesday.
Role players David Kämpf (bone-rattling bodycheck) and Noel Acciari (full-windup slapshot) each absorbed blows forceful enough to send them to the trainer’s room. Both hustled back into action.
Justin Holl rebounded just swell from healthy-scratch status and, with partner T.J. Brodie, made Keefe look wise in his decision to tweak his shutdown pairing for the first time all season.
John Tavares sold out to eat a puck and went a perfect 7-0 in the faceoff dot. Marner checked with edge. And Nylander looked like a threat in every zone.
When the dust settled, the shots on net were a dead heat 25-25, but Toronto out-shot-blocked the Panthers to the tune of 21-9. Florida coach Paul Maurice pointed to that as the difference in the outcome.
“Whoever wants it more, I think that’s a huge part of it,” said Luke Schenn, excellent in the D-zone.
The Leafs also outhit their hosts 26-21.
These stats aren’t about skill. They’re about urgency and desperation.
“I think just knowing what we’re capable of. We hadn’t gotten up to our standards,” Nylander said post-game. “If we battle, we have a chance against these guys.”
Panthers fans filled FLA Live Arena armed with plastic rats and posterboards that read: “DON’T RAKE THE LEAFS. SWEEP THE LEAFS!”
Well, the sweep is off the table.
Florida must travel north, and the Maple Leafs have a chance to stretch this thing to six.
They showed up, all of ’em.
So, what does that tell you?
“The first thing is that they care. They care deeply. And because of that, you give that type of effort. They didn’t want to go quietly,” Keefe said.
“From the coach side of it, now you look and say, well, that’s the standard. That’s where we’ve been trying to get to. That is what’s required. So, we can’t have any letup.
“It’s a great response. But it’s one response.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Game-winning goal scorer Marner was asked if the road win suddenly changes the series’ power dynamic and plants a seed of doubt in the Panthers.
“Who cares?” Marner replied. “We’re about ourselves in here. We’re focusing on ourselves. We know we gotta keep this effort up.”
• Not arguing one bit with the choice to start prospect Joseph Woll in an elimination game. He was calm and steady.
But is it not an indictment of a healthy Matt Murray, acquired largely for his big-game pedigree? One must wonder how Toronto gets out from Murray’s contract next season.
“It isn’t a reflection of how we feel about Matt Murray. It’s more about how we feel about Joe Woll,” Keefe says.
“And his development over the last year is, frankly, just well above what we had anticipated in terms of the timeline — especially for a guy that missed training camp, lots of his off-season. Didn’t get to train.
“He did a tremendous job.”
• Radko Gudas crushed David Kämpf as he’s touching the puck on a delayed penalty. Would have liked to see the Kämpf’s teammates get in Gudas’s face for the controversial check.
• Paul Maurice, out of context: “I stay the hell away from goaltenders. They freak me out.”
• After Game 3, I was walking around Fort Lauderdale doing a radio hit and saying into my phone how things look dire for Toronto. A car pulls up, windows down, and a perfect stranger who must have overheard my commentary yells: “Shut your mouth! Maple Leafs in 7! Wooo!”
Bless this traveling, passionate nation.