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Matthews still ill with Leafs on brink of elimination


Matthews still ill with Leafs on brink of elimination

TORONTO -- Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews is still feeling the effects of an illness that forced him from the third period of Toronto's 3-1 loss in Game 4 of Toronto's first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Bruins on Saturday.

Matthews had played through the sickness in Game 3 -- which the Leafs also lost, 4-2 -- and battled again in Game 4 until Toronto's team doctors pulled him out of action for the final frame. The Leafs now face elimination from the postseason in Game 5 on Tuesday and there's no guarantee Matthews will be well enough to dress for the crucial contest.

"We thought the last couple of days would help us," said coach Sheldon Keefe after Toronto's team meeting on Sunday. "But, for whatever reason, it's not one of those run-of-the-mill type of illnesses that sort of comes and goes. This one has lingered, and the effects have lingered and gotten worse when he's got on the ice and is asserting himself."

Keefe hoped the extra day of recovery on Sunday would help Matthews feel stronger on the ice by Tuesday. The Leafs already face an uphill battle to stay alive in the playoffs after an emotional defeat on Saturday that included a bench argument gone viral between Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

The Leafs were trailing 3-0 in the second period when cameras captured the team's three top forwards exchanging heated words, right before they were booed off the ice at intermission by the hometown crowd.

On the outside that scene looked like a sign of turmoil, but Keefe saw passion behind his players' words as a positive signal.

"In the past, quite honestly, that wouldn't have happened, guys wouldn't have talked it out, wouldn't have, if you want to call it 'arguing' it out," he said. "That wouldn't have happened. I look at that as progress and those guys care. I don't look at it as frustration, I look at them being upset and pissed off that that they didn't deliver for the team and they're pushing and challenging each other to get it right."

It has been a difficult postseason in some fashion for all three skaters. Matthews was the standout in Game 2, tallying three points and the game-winner to lift Toronto to its only playoff victory so far. But that's all Matthews has put on the scoresheet through four games. Marner has just two points to his credit and Nylander only suited up for his first game on Saturday after missing the start of these playoffs with an undisclosed injury.

Keefe said it's not the first time there's been verbal sparring amongst the Leafs' core players, and he felt it did lead to tangible results on Saturday.

"The better thing for me is that the remainder of the game, in the next opportunities that we had, they're working together, they're talking about it, they're making the plan," said Keefe. "These guys have been together a long time, and they are pushing and challenging each other to get it right and they know how important they are to the team and when they're not delivering, they recognize it."

It's not just those three players who have to be better in Game 5. Toronto's managed just seven playoff goals as a team, and their putrid power play is a momentum-sucking 1-for-14. Boston has offered Toronto opportunities to cash in with the extra man, including less than four minutes into Game 4 with a bench minor for too many men, but the Leafs have done anything but take advantage.

The lack of special teams success -- despite changes to personnel -- is what irked Keefe the most and where he is certain the Leafs can improve their prospects for a victory on Tuesday.

"II there's one area that really stood out [in Game 4], it's our power play had a chance to really get us going in the game and in that first period and really failed to do so," he said. "That was probably the most disappointing part of the game, and that the urgency level wasn't higher at that particular time. So that's a big one. We made changes to the top power play unit, and it got worse, not better. Today is about diagnosing some of the things that have been problematic and looking at some of the things that have gone well for us in this series and how we continue to embrace those and build upon them.

Keefe pointed out the Leafs' lone victory in the series included a power play goal and critical penalty kill, showcasing why those special teams battles could tell the tale for Toronto again in Game 5. Focusing on what the Leafs can control is the message Keefe said he's tried to send and that includes having Toronto maintain the right mindset before heading back to Boston.

"It's less about recognizing that you're facing elimination," he said, "and look at it more so as the opportunity to go in on the road, give ourselves some life in this series and bring it back home for a chance to get it right [in Game 6]."

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20 of May 2024