Tavares, Leafs staying even-keeled ahead of Game 5

By Abdulhamid Ibrahim

TORONTO – The opportunity at hand is not lost on Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares. And he says it’s a great one for his team to rise to.

Toronto holds a 3-1 lead in its first-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into Game 5 on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena. The Maple Leafs have not won a playoff series since 2004 and are 2-17 over their last 19 post-season contests when leading a series.

Asked what the moment is like, the Mississauga, Ont., native shared a similar mantra to that of Basketball Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant’s famed “job’s not finished” from the 2009 NBA Finals.

“It’s cliche, but you really just try not to get too high or too low. I think we’ve just put ourselves in a good spot but the job’s not done,” Tavares said. “The hardest one to get is the last one, so just continue to go about our business as we have all season.

“We’re up against a tough opponent, it’s a tough challenge, so it’s a great opportunity to rise to that and go out there and play well.”

After dropping the series opener 7-3 at home, Toronto strung together three consecutive wins, including back-to-back comeback overtime victories on the road.

Winning in such fashion, along with the talent the Leafs possess, gives the team confidence going forward.

“I think, obviously, finding ways to win those two games, not playing our best, shows us that, ‘Hey, we’re a good team here, we could find a way,”’ said forward Ryan O’Reilly. “Over the course of a seven-game series, there are ones that you got to steal and that’s what we did.

“Knowing that if we do get back to playing a full 60 (minutes) the right way and the way that we know how to and dictating more, we’re going to put ourselves in an even better spot to succeed.”

But It’s not the first time the Leafs have been in this position. They held the same advantage two years back against the Montreal Canadiens but were ousted after losing three straight.

Despite having a much different roster from that 2020-21 season, Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe says the collective memory from that collapse still lingers.

“The core, of course, has remained the same and those guys have been through a lot together, myself included, so that’s real and that’s felt,” he said. “I think there’s growth inside of that. There’s motivation and focus because of those things.

“We’ve got great experience within our group all the way through, including the depth, and I think that brings a lot to the team and that’s part of, again, the different type of feel around the group.”

Tavares added that the noise from the outside regarding the past is out of their control.

“It’s in the past and it’s done with,” he said. “Obviously (there have been) results we haven’t liked and I think they just add fuel to the fire.”

With fans in anticipation of a potential first-round win after years of agonizing post-season losses, Tavares looks forward to building on their energy.

“Should be fantastic, no doubt they’re gonna push us on,” he said. “You gotta be smart in managing the emotions but it’s obviously an opportunity to take advantage of the energy they’re gonna bring and the environment they’re gonna create.”

As far as pressure goes, O’Reilly says the team has the focus it needs for Thursday.

“We also got a lot of work left. To close these guys out, it should be tough,” he said. “The pressure, I think just playing in Toronto, it’s always elevated, but in the room, we have a narrow focus and it’s just win the next game, do what we can there and build from that.”