Leafs host Canadiens in Game 7 looking to avoid collapse

TORONTO (AP) — Nick Foligno still believes.

The same goes for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and the rest of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Believing, however, is one thing. Doing is something different entirely.

Toronto is left with zero room for error ahead of Monday’s Game 7 in its first-round playoff series with Montreal after failing to match the Canadiens’ intensity and desire twice in 48 hours.

The Leafs had two opportunities to change their own narrative and eliminate a wounded opponent. But a tortured fanbase instead watched as the Canadiens were allowed off the mat thanks to a lack of killer instinct that’s been a worrying hallmark for this talented group.

Up 3-1 in the series with an opportunity to clinch, the Leafs were stuck in neutral early in Game 5 at home. They fell behind 3-0 before rallying to tie and eventually losing in overtime.

Still ahead 3-2 heading to Montreal — where 2,500 fans were allowed inside the Bell Centre for the first Canadian NHL crowd since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — the Leafs promised things would be different.

They weren’t.

Montreal again came out blazing before that small, boisterous crowd that sounded like a full house against Toronto.

The Canadiens scored twice in the third period to go up 2-0 before the Leafs again flipped a switch and responded with two in the final nine minutes of regulation.

Toronto dominated OT, outshooting Montreal 13-2. But the calm, cool Carey Price made a number of big saves before Jesperi Kotkaniemi took advantage of a turnover to send the series to a seventh game.

“It’s time for the words to stop, the cliches to stop,” Foligno said in the wake of his team’s most recent setback following a personal three-game injury absence. “It’s time to put it all on line.

“I have no doubt going to battle with these guys that we’ll do that.”

Toronto fans are decidedly less optimistic. And history gives them plenty of reasons to be.

The Leafs’ previous series win came 17 years ago — 6,250 days by the time they hit the ice Monday — against the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 the 2004 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Toronto, which dominated this season’s Canadian-based North Division, failed to make the playoffs seven straight years on the heels of the 2004-05 lockout before returning to the postseason in 2012-13. The Leafs led the Boston Bruins 4-1 in the third period of Game 7 to set the stage for a jaw-dropping collapse.

There would be three more seasons of missing the playoffs — Toronto bottomed out in 2015-16, but was rewarded with the No. 1 pick to select Matthews — before a return in 2016-17.

The young, upstart Leafs fell to the Washington Capitals that spring. But expectations were much higher the next two years when Toronto fell to Boston twice more in seven games.

The inconsistent Leafs were also eliminated from last summer’s postseason bubble by the Columbus Blue Jackets in a five-game set that went the distance.

In all, Toronto has lost seven straight games where it could have eliminated an opponent. That includes six since 2018 with the core of Matthews, Marner and William Nylander.

“We’ve been on the other end of the stick in these do-or-die games,” Matthews said. “We’d obviously like to rewrite that script. We have great opportunity come Monday.

“We’ll be ready.”

Toronto added grit, leadership and experience in hopes of rectifying the issues identified in past playoff failures. But it desperately needs more out of Marner and Matthews, especially with captain John Tavares out.

The dynamic duo put up gaudy offensive numbers in the 56-game regular season — Matthews won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s goal-scoring leader, while Marner was a point better than his linemate to rank fourth in the league. But they’ve combined to score just once in the playoffs.

The underlying numbers suggest they’re doing their part. The puck just isn’t going in.

The scoresheet, series ledger and eye test all suggest otherwise.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re better,” Marner said. “Nothing we can do now. Just got to make sure we’re ready for Game 7.

“Look forward to it.”

The Leafs are 11-1 all time when leading a series 3-1 and 7-1 at home in Game 7. But it’s hard to ignore the mounting pressure on a group that will face the toughest questions of their careers if Toronto once again fades feebly into the night.

“You have to ignore it,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, in the top job since partway through last season. “I don’t think pressure has anything to do with it at this stage. I don’t think that’s a factor.

“The games have gotten harder, Montreal has played better and we haven’t dealt with it.”

The Leafs were unable to overcome back-to-back Nazem Kadri playoff suspensions in 2018 and 2019 — Toronto led the latter 3-2 with a chance to clinch at home — and an injury to defenseman Jake Muzzin was a key factor in last summer’s defeat to Foligno’s Blue Jackets.

With more depth in 2021, Toronto lost Tavares to a concussion and knee injury following a scary collision in Game 1. Muzzin appeared to pull his groin Saturday and could miss Monday’s winner-take-all finale at Scotiabank Arena.

Looking to rally from 3-1 down to win a series for the third time in franchise history, the Canadiens insist the mounting angst on the other side isn’t a focus.

But there’s little doubt they know it’s there.

“We’re thinking about the next game,” Montreal captain Shea Weber said. “We’ve given ourselves a chance to play for the series, and that’s all we could ask.

“We have belief.”

So does Toronto, but the results will be all that matters.

“Don’t worry about what the fans are saying,” Foligno said of the message ahead of a Game 7 that could define this roster. “Sometimes this is what catapults you. It’s hard for the fan base to hear right now, but we are going to come and have the mindset that we’re going to win a hockey game.

“With the odds, with this team … that’s what’s going to get done.”

They have one last chance.

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