After surrendering a lead and losing Game 3 in typically dramatic fashion, the Toronto Maple Leafs appeared on their way to another disappointing early exit from the postseason, trailing the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 4 of their Stanley Cup qualifier by three goals late in the third period.
But as the post-mortems were being written, the Leafs staged an improbable comeback with three goals in the final four minutes of regulation to force overtime and win the game on Auston Matthews power-play goal.
The Blue Jackets built a 3-0 lead on goals from Cam Atkinson, Vladislav Gavrikov, and Boone Jenner which based on their team’s defensive prowess seemed insurmountable. Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was forced into the desperate measure of going with six attackers with nearly five minutes left and the six-man unit of Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, and Morgan Rielly succeeded in breaking through on goalie Elvis Merzlikins and a Columbus squad hoping to run out the clock.
Nylander buried a rebound to get Toronto on the scoreboard, Tavares top corner snipe 51 seconds later narrowed the lead to 3-2 and Hyman set up by a Matthews pass tied the game with 22 seconds left.
"I saw Auston in the middle and then it hit him. I thought he was going to shoot it too and then he came back to me and got it off my skate and just tried to throw it to the net. JT had a great screen and it went in. It was crazy.” Hyman said after the game. "It's natural that those thoughts (of the season being over) start to creep in when (Columbus) scored the third goal, but it's just 'put your foot on the gas' (and) keep going. It's not over until the time runs out and then once you get that first one, you’re only down two. Then we got the second one pretty quick after that and then the belief starts to grow and grow and you give yourself a chance to just keep putting pucks on net and we tied it up."
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe after hinting at possible lineup changes for Game 4 went with the same group on Friday, which seemed to be a miscalculation based on Toronto’s sluggish start and Keefe reshuffling his forward lines later in the game in search for some magic. The only unit that remained intact was the fourth line of Jason Spezza, Kyle Clifford and Pierre Engvall, which provided Toronto with consistently good shifts and a spark in the game when Spezza fought Jackets defenseman Dean Kukan.
“(I was) just trying to spark the guys. I think just trying to show some desperation and have some push back.” Spezza said. “Sometimes without the crowd, you don't have that, so just trying to create some emotion and play the role that I'm in and just try to get everyone going. You're just trying to do what you can do at this time of year.”
In the end, it was Toronto’s core forwards that rescued them, as Nylander, Tavares, Marner, and Matthews combined for 10 points to save their season, but it will take another effort like that in Game 5 to get the Leafs into the next round. The Jackets were without defenseman Ryan Murray (scratched in favor of former Leaf Scott Harrington) for Game 4 and lost blueliner Zach Werenski for the final nine minutes of regulation and overtime.
GM Jarmo Kekalainen met with the media on Saturday and did not have an update on Werenski, who along with defense partner Seth Jones is logging the most minutes for the Blue Jackets.
With the elimination of Minnesota, Edmonton, Nashville, Pittsburgh and Florida on Friday, the Leafs - Blue Jackets series is the only one to go the five-game limit. With their upset of the Penguins, the 12th seeded Habs will face the winner of the Tampa Bay - Philadelphia round-robin game on Saturday, while the winner of Game 5 (scheduled for 8pm on Sunday) will face the loser of Lightning - Flyers in the first round next week.
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