Before two teams is one big opportunity.
The Toronto Maple Leafs take a 3-1 series lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning into Thursday night’s game in front of an energetic and perhaps nervous home crowd. They will try to reverse a recent NHL playoffs history that hangs over the historic franchise.
On the other side will be the postseason-tested Lightning who are used to winning such games. But the Lightning’s three-year run of making the Stanley Cup Final, winning two of them, could very well be at the end.
Toronto is in the postseason for the seventh season in a row, but the Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since 2004.
That’s why the Leafs won’t be celebrating until they know for sure they are moving on to the next round, and coach Sheldon Keefe said Tuesday morning after rallying from three goals down to win 5-4 the night before, the mood at breakfast was “calm and quiet.”
“We’ve got to prepare to win one hockey game, one very challenging hockey game, and that’s really it,” Keefe said. “Anything else outside of our preparation and then our execution when game time comes is a distraction. It’s on me as the coach and our players individually to eliminate as many distractions as possible and keep the focus where it is.”
Toronto will be without Michael Bunting, who had served a three-game suspension for elbowing Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak in Game 1. Cernak is still out of the lineup, and Keefe said Wednesday he would continue to hold out Bunting.
The Leafs will try to eliminate a Lightning team that likely won’t go down easily. They trailed 3-1 in last year’s Stanley Cup Final, but then went to Colorado and won Game 5 to extend the series. Tampa Bay opened those playoffs by rallying from 3-2 down to defeat the Leafs.
“We’ve had plenty of success in Toronto’s home arena in the playoffs, so we’re confident we can do that again,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “No guarantees, naturally, but we have confidence in ourselves.”
This series likely will have ramifications beyond this postseason.
Should the Leafs blow another series, management could do a complete rebuild. If it’s the Lightning heading to the golf courses early, that team’s ownership could decide it’s time to start over with a younger group.
Keefe wasn’t wrong in saying it’s one hockey game, but it’s also much more than that.
RANGERS at DEVILS, Series tied 2-2 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
After winning two games on the road to even the series, the Devils will be looking to build off their improved play as they return home for the pivotal Game 5. New Jersey dropped the first two games at home by 5-1 margins, then limited the Rangers to two goals in the last two games.
“Our team has played a lot better,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “When you look at what we’ve done the last two games, we’ve cleaned up our defensive game.”
The Rangers have noticed and know they need to do a better job of attacking when they have the puck. After totaling just nine giveaways the first two games, they had 34 in the two losses.
“When we let them get set, it’s hard for us to get in their zone,” New York’s Mika Zibanejad said. “It’s easier for them to regroup, get the puck, and go the other way. We obviously don’t get up to that level of play that we want to. That’s something we have to get back to.”
JETS AT GOLDEN KNIGHTS, Vegas leads 3-1 (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy knows he doesn’t have to make a hard sell to his team to not assume this series is over.
The Knights led three other series 3-1 that reached a Game 7. In 2019, Vegas lost three in a row to San Jose, and survived subsequent Game 7s to beat Vancouver in 2020 and Minnesota in 2021. Now the Knights will try to close out Winnipeg, and Vegas captain Mark Stone said he expects the Jets’ best.
“If they don’t win tomorrow, their season’s done, so we’re are going to expect a desperate team,” Stone said. “We’ve got to match that, if not exceed it. I don’t know if you’re carrying momentum from Game 4, but you’re definitely feeling like you like the way you’re playing, so we’ve got to continue just to build off that.”
The Knights could get back William Carrier, who practiced Wednesday. Carrier, who has 16 goals and 25 points, hasn’t played since suffering a lower-body injury March 3.
Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele, who led the Jets in the regular season with 42 goals, will not play after sustaining an upper-body injury in Game 4. The Jets, however, could get back Nikolaj Ehlers, who hasn’t played in this series because of an upper-body injury. He was a full participant at Wednesday’s practice.
“We’ll talk it over, but I feel good,” Ehlers said.