(Toronto) Sheldon Keefe and his players were about to head to the airport and board a plane they would have preferred to see stay on the tarmac.
Twenty-four hours earlier, the Toronto Maple Leafs had just squandered an opportunity to eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
Familiar themes have kept the Maple Leafs from emerging again from a generation of playoff torment and a reputation as a team unable to eliminate an opponent in the cables.
The Torontonians slipped to 0-10 when given the opportunity to eliminate a team during the Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner era. The Lightning erased an early lead and held off a late Maple Leafs push to win 4-2 to force Game 6.
Keefe, who has been the team’s head coach for four years, however, was heartened by the energy of his players on a day they wanted to spend celebrating a win the Toronto outfit haven’t tasted in nearly two decades.
“Before you walk into a meeting, you always have a pretty good idea of where the group is going based on the volume, the energy, and the talk in the locker room,” Keefe said Friday of the scene in the center of club training before this trip south. It was dynamic, so that’s a very good sign.
“It’s to make sure we’re in the right frame of mind and recognize that we still have a great opportunity here to win a series. »
The Maple Leafs have two more attempts, but a city and fans that have seen epic meltdowns in the past woke up feeling uncomfortable after the first of three chances evaporated Thursday night.
“We have another chance to finish this,” winger Calle Jarnkrok said. We feel good. We haven’t shown them our best hockey yet. »
The Maple Leafs have tended to be cautious rather than diving headfirst against the Lightning, who beat the Torontonians in seven games last year en route to a third straight Stanley Cup Final appearance.
The Maple Leafs had big surges in Games 3, 4 and 5, but they weren’t able to find a winning three-period formula.
A few keys for the Maple Leafs will be to get out of the zone better to avoid pressure from the Lightning, then find a way to cross the neutral zone to initiate the cycle play in the back of the territory.
The Lightning of course have a say in Game 6 scheduled for Saturday at Amalie Arena.
“Make plays when they’re there, skate without the puck, give options and first passes,” Tavares said. Especially when the guys are under pressure, whether it’s our defensemen or when the puck is on the boards. This execution helps slow them down and allows us to progress our game into their zone. »
The Maple Leafs would have gladly taken a 3-2 series lead when the puck went down for Game 1, after being crushed and trailing in Games 3 and 4.
“We put ourselves in a good position,” Keefe said. The guys recognize it. Depending on their mood, there is excitement to hit the road and get back on the rink. »
Torontonians will soon know if these good vibes mean anything.