The Toronto Maple Leafs are having difficulty dealing with the momentum of the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup First Round, coach Sheldon Keefe said.
“The games have gotten harder, Montreal’s played better, and we haven’t dealt with it well,” Keefe said candidly after Toronto’s 3-2 overtime loss in Game 6 at Bell Centre in Montreal on Saturday.
They’re running out of time to find a solution. Game 7 is at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Monday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
The loss was another missed opportunity for the Maple Leafs to win their first playoff series since 2004. After building a 3-1 lead in the series, they have lost the past two games and are 0-6 in elimination games since 2018 in which they would have advanced with a victory.
Toronto’s recent track record in Game 7s adds more angst to an anxious fan base that has seen this movie before. The Maple Leafs have lost their past three Game 7s, all first-round exits to the Boston Bruins (2013, 2018, 2019). They also lost a win-and-go-home Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers last season.
Keefe said the Maple Leafs are ignoring such history, as difficult as that might be. Instead, they are trying to create some of their own.
“We’re not focused on any of the other things that frankly are irrelevant in this moment with our team,” Keefe said.
In order for the Maple Leafs to get back on track, Mitchell Marner and Auston Matthews, their best players, have to be exactly that. With one goal between them through the first six games, scored by Matthews in a 5-1 win in Game 2 on May 22, even the normally upbeat Keefe said he needs more from them.
Asked about how he thought the Marner-Matthews-Zach Hyman line performed, the coach didn’t mince words.
“I thought they worked really hard,” Keefe said. “Obviously they didn’t get enough done.”
The forward led the Maple Leafs and finished fourth in the NHL with 67 points (20 goals, 47 assists) in 55 games this season. Matthews was tied for fifth with 66 points (41 goals, 25 assists) in 52 games, and won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL goals leader.
Marner said the reason success hasn’t translated into playoff goals is simple: The line is spending too much time in the defensive zone.
“We need to be better in these situations,” Marner said. “We’re doing a decent job moving the puck around and getting to the net, but too much energy wasted in our own zone. We’re better than that.”
The game was played before a crowd of 2,500, the first time fans had been able to attend an NHL game in Canada in 14 months. Marner said the Canadiens fed off the crowd’s energy but refused to use that as an excuse for yet another poor start by the Maple Leafs.
Toronto was sluggish from the opening face-off and was outshot 7-0 in the first three minutes. In Game 5, a 4-3 Montreal victory in overtime Thursday, the Maple Leafs found themselves down 2-0 after 8:18, courtesy of a pair of goals by Canadiens forward Joel Armia.
“Again, we just didn’t come ready to play at the start of the game,” Marner said. “It’s said too often.”
Marner credited goalie Jack Campbell, who made 15 saves in the first period Saturday, for keeping them in the game.
“They had their chance at the start of the game and [Campbell] was huge for us like usual,” Marner said. “We’ve just got to make sure that we really do start on time because it’s getting said a lot and it’s not good enough.”
Matthews said he was frustrated with the loss but said it must be put in the past.
“We’re going to move on,” he said. “We’ve got another game here, so we go back home. We’ve got to be ready.”