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Maple Leafs’ Big Four rewrite ending to the season in its most dire moment

TORONTO — When I was just a kid who loved going to sporting events, there was a reason my dad and I never left the arena before the final buzzer sounded.

We always fundamentally believed that something might happen worth staying for.

But now that I’m lucky enough to be paid to attend these games, I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: I don’t often think that way. I’m forced to pre-judge the outcomes in order to write a story that can be posted on our website within minutes of the game ending.

On Friday night, I had written 700 words about the end of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season that will never see the light of day. The first line of that story read: “When the end was near, they had nothing left to give.”

Can you imagine being more wrong?

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That’s an indication of how it looked and felt before lightning struck inside an empty Scotiabank Arena. The Leafs were toast. Sheldon Keefe was detonating every bomb in his possession, going to the nuclear option with John TavaresAuston Matthews-Mitch Marner shifts and giving Morgan Rielly a look on the top power-play unit instead of Tyson Barrie, and his team was still digging an even deeper hole.

They allowed Boone Jenner to make it 3-0 for Columbus with less than six minutes remaining in regulation.

On a night the Leafs were facing elimination, an entire city was thinking the same thing. That includes some of the guys paid to be on the visiting bench who were minutes away from checking out of the NHL bubble to take a quick limo ride home.

“I think it’s natural that those thoughts start to creep in when they score the third goal,” said Leafs winger Zach Hyman.

It’s telling where Keefe’s mind went in those most dire moments: To the players who had performed well for him in this summer best-of-five, and were about to go down with the sinking ship.

He didn’t name names but it’s safe to assume Matthews was at the top of the list. He’d played physically and responsibly, logged more minutes for the Leafs than everyone but Rielly, and launched more shots on goal than anyone in the series while hitting more goal posts and crossbars, too.

“I was thinking about some of the great efforts that we’ve had here over the last number of days that I felt maybe we’re not going to be rewarded for it,” said Keefe. “I felt bad about that because I think we have had some individuals that have been really, really great through all of this.”

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Then the series got turned upside down. The Leafs scored three goals in the final four minutes of regulation with Frederik Andersen pulled for an extra attacker. Keefe’s Big Four forwards exploded for 10 points combined in the final 17-plus minutes, including the first three-point playoff game of Matthews’ career.

The same six skaters were on ice for the last three shots the team registered in the third period, all of them goals: Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Hyman, Rielly and William Nylander.

Once Nylander snuck a puck behind Elvis Merzlikins at 16:03 of the third period, Tavares fired a perfect shot past him at 16:54 when Matthews found him available in the slot. Hyman extended the Leafs season by making it 3-3 on a shot he squeaked through Merzlikins’ five-hole at 19:37 after Matthews froze the defenders by passing back to him rather than shooting it himself.

“I thought he was going to shoot it, too, and then he came back to me and got it off my skate and just tried to throw it to the net,” said Hyman. “JT had a great screen and it went in. It was crazy.”

Every reporter stationed a safe distance apart in the upper bowl was either deleting a story or starting a new one at that very moment.

Matthews completed the unlikely Leafs comeback at 13:10 of overtime. Nick Foligno had been sent to the penalty box for tripping Morgan Rielly — a call the Blue Jackets felt was ticky tacky — when the Leafs sniper slipped down from the right point, took a perfect Tavares pass and one-timed it by Merzlikins.

“It was really nice and fitting the way that the goal was scored,” said Keefe. “The winning goal, Mitch to JT to Auston.”

That was the 10th shot Matthews registered on goal in the game — tying his career high from a regular-season contest in Chicago on Nov. 10, 2019.

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What’s interesting is he only found himself in that spot, manning the right side of the Leafs top power-play unit, after developing a one-timer from his off side last summer. And he’d been completely nullified there in the opening three games of this series with just three total shot attempts in 5-on-4 situations before discovering openings by drifting back and forth between the point.

It had to be the biggest goal of his career.

“I don’t really know what to really feel in the moment, to be honest,” said Matthews. “I think your mind just kind of goes blank and I think it’s a credit to every single guy on our team for just sticking with it, battling back and just not quitting down 3-0 with a couple minutes left.

“I think that’s a testament to each guy in this locker-room and I think everybody should be extremely proud of each other.”

They had been left for dead and with good reason. The Leafs had blown their own 3-0 lead just 24 hours earlier and didn’t seem to have any answer for the patient five-man wall the Blue Jackets built around Merzlikins.

“This is a funny game,” said Keefe. “A funny, funny game.”

Might as well play one more.

Hand over heart, I’ll stay in my seat until the end of Game 5 and I’ll wait for the final buzzer to sound before deciding what my lead is.

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