Austin Matthews let his actions on the ice speak all season.
The Toronto star sniper also didn’t mince words with the Maple Leafs preparing for another showdown in Game 7 and the intense pressure from previous playoff failures casting a long shadow.
The NHL’s first man to score 60 goals in more than a decade wants his team to embrace the moment.
In reality, he expects it.
“That’s all you can do,” said Matthews in the wake of Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss, which allowed the Tampa Bay Lightning to avoid elimination and force a winner-take-all final in a run with paper-thin margins and little. continued momentum .
“We just have to put our balls on the line and go for it.”
The Leafs will host the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions in Saturday’s Game 7 as they attempt to finally turn around a post-season script riddled with infamous collapses and missed opportunities.
“That’s the perfect way to describe Game 7s,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said Friday of his best player’s comments before the Leafs flew home. “It takes a total effort. You have to put everything you have into the game.
“It will be two teams that will leave it all there.”
Mark Giordano smiled when asked about Matthews’s blunt words.
“We have to have that mentality,” said the experienced defender. “We have to believe in ourselves. We are good enough to beat everyone.”
However, the Lightning are not just anyone.
A battle-tested and scarred roster knows what it takes this time of year after overcoming his own playoff heartbreak.
Toronto, meanwhile, is still desperately trying to reach that level as the team continues to search for its first win in the series since 2004.
The core of this Leafs group — Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly — have now had eight chances in the last five playoffs to beat an opponent in an elimination game.
They have failed to get the job done every time.
The Leafs could have changed the story in Game 7 last spring at home to the Montreal Canadiens – the rink was empty except for 550 health workers due to COVID-19 restrictions – but fell flat to place a dubious exclamation mark on a blown 3 -1 series lead.
Then there was Toronto’s inability to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets in the bubble after the 2020 season and seven-game consecutive defeats to the Boston Bruins in 2018 and 2019.
But challenges are something these Leafs have faced all season. They started slow, found their game in the fall and faced a massive coronavirus outbreak, before finishing with a franchise record 115 points – good for second place in the Atlantic Division and home field advantage in the first round.
Toronto has also fought back from 2-0 deficit in their last two games against Tampa, winning at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday before falling short in Thursday’s overtime thriller.
“All the work we’ve done to get into this series and to get into this series has prepared us for a situation where we give ourselves a chance to win,” said Keefe. “Because of all that work, (Game 7) happens to be in Toronto.
“The feeling in our team is one of great confidence.”
On the other hand, Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said his players can’t assume the post-season demons of the Leafs will be a factor on Saturday.
“I don’t think we can look back at what’s happened to Toronto in the past and think, ‘We’ve got this,'” he said. “We would be gravely mistaken if that’s the attitude we took.”
Giordano, who took over from the Seattle Kraken before the trade deadline, recalls the hustle and bustle of the last Game 7 in Toronto some 18 years ago when the Leafs outmatched the Ottawa Senators in the first round.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us as players to be a part of that,” said the 38-year-old, who grew up in Canada’s largest city. “We have one game where everything is at stake.
“It’s great to be a part of it.”
The good news for Toronto is that the team’s big guns have led the way for most of the series, with Matthews, Marner, Nylander and captain John Tavares all coming to the fore at key moments.
“They’ve been leaders,” Giordano said. “I’m just really impressed with the behavior of the group.”
He added that the butterflies for Saturday are likely to start earlier than usual.
“It’s going to be hard to take your nap before the game and all because you’re going to be so excited,” he said. “But that’s a good thing. That means you care and are really looking forward to playing in that game.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
Keefe believes, as Toronto’s best player emphatically stated on Thursday after coming painfully close to breaking the playoff ceiling, the Leafs will seize the opportunity.
“This team has a lot of struggle,” he said. “Doesn’t make the game or the challenge or the opponent any easier, but we certainly don’t feel uncomfortable. We are ready.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 13, 2022.