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The Chance of a Lifetime

This year, things feel different.

In a true case of playoff magic, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves with a 3-1 lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning, with a chance to close out the series at home tonight.

After they seemed dead in the water halfway through the second period on Tuesday, trailing 4-1, Auston Matthews scored twice to bring the Leafs within one. Morgan Rielly scored to tie it up with 4 minutes remaining in regulation. In overtime, Alex Kerfoot perfectly tipped a point shot from Mark Giordano, sending the Leafs home with a 3-1 series lead.

The team, however, while elated at the win, seems measured in their approach to the possibly series-clinching game 4.

We all know that the job’s not close to finished,” said Matthews postgame. “We’ve gotta re-focus, enjoy this one but obviously the fourth one’s the hardest one to win.”

Although Michael Bunting has come back from a three-game suspension, he won’t be back in the Leafs lineup for game five, as Matthew Knies has earned the right to stay in.

“Knies is certainly not coming out of the lineup,” Head Coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He’s done a terrific job for us. So he’s a guy who’s earned his spot and the opportunity to continue to play for us there.

Bunting was made available to the media for the first time since being suspended and spoke about the decision to keep him out.

“I’m just trying to be a great teammate, cheer the boys on and help in any way I can,” said Bunting after practice today. “My job is to be a good teammate and a professional in all aspects, so that’s what I intend on doing. I just wait for my number to be called.”

We’re just comfortable with the group that’s won three games in a row, that’s it.” Said Keefe.

Whatever lineup decision the coach makes, it won’t matter unless the entire team rises to the occasion. Not just great individual efforts, but every individual giving their best effort. Working towards their common goal to close out this series. Doing what they haven't done for 19 years.

This team, when looking at it compared to its past versions, seems ready to win. In 2021 against Montreal, they had a 3-1 series lead but fell apart under the pressure and weight of expectations. Last year in 2022 they lost by just one goal, having a controversial goal called back which could have tied the game late. Again, the killer instinct seemed missing from the team, and they were unable to finish off a downed opponent.

This year, things feel different.

It’s a calmness surrounding the team. A certain sense of experience and confidence flows through that dressing room. Maybe it was the deadline acquisitions of recent cup champions in Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn, maybe it’s recognizing a weaker Tampa team than last season or a combination of it all. Regardless, this team is ready to win.

As we said at the start of the series, the team has to believe in can win before they do. The belief is there. All that’s left is execution. Coming back home with a 3-1 series lead, this is the chance of a lifetime

Dave Felsbourg

Thursday, April 27, 2023

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