Leafs expect Canadiens’ ‘absolute best’ in Game 5, Thornton says


A Toronto victory Thursday would oust the Habs and give the Leafs their first playoff series win since 2004.

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On the verge of making history, the moment hasn’t been lost on members of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ organization.

With a victory Thursday in Game 5 against the Canadiens (7 p.m., CBC, SN, TVA Sports, TSN Radio 690, 98.5 FM) at Scotiabank Arena, the Leafs will capture the North Division series and win a playoff round for the first time since 2004.

That might seem like a small step in the big picture, but it would be huge for an organization that hasn’t won the Stanley Cup — or advance to the final — since 1967.

“I certainly recognize the opportunity and responsibility I have as one of the leaders of the organization,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said Wednesday during a video conference. “We know this is a hurdle we have to get over.

“As an organization, of course, we need to deliver. We’ve given ourselves a great opportunity to do that. There’s a reason why it’s been this many years — closing out a series is a very difficult thing to do. We respect that greatly. We respect our opponent. We know (Thursday’s) game’s going to be the hardest one of the series.”

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While the Leafs anticipate a desperate Canadiens team — one that’s facing elimination — Montreal hasn’t displayed that it’s up to the task, other than winning the opening game. The Canadiens have scored only four goals in the series, just came off two defeats on home ice and — despite proclaiming their heightened awareness prior to Tuesday’s game — were shutout 4-0 while generating only six shots in the first period.

The only signs of desperation from the Canadiens during the last two games materialized in the third period, while trying to overcome deficits.

“We’re going to see their absolute best next game and have to make sure we’re ready to go,” Joe Thornton, 41, said Tuesday after scoring his team’s third goal. “We have to come ready to play. They’re going to be a determined team.”

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While Thornton has only one goal in the series, 37-year-old Jason Spezza has two goals and three points. There’s no question those two veterans have outplayed the Canadiens’ pair of Eric Staal and Corey Perry, but it goes far beyond that.

The Canadiens simply can’t match the Leafs’ depth or offensive production. Toronto is missing injured captain John Tavares, while Auston Matthews — who led the NHL with 41 goals — has gone two games without scoring. But the Leafs haven’t missed a beat, in part because William Nylander has four goals, matching the entire Canadiens’ output.

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“It’s the playoffs and anything can happen,” Nylander said Wednesday. “We’re just here, trying to win a series. We have a big goal, and that’s one small step on the road down we want to accomplish.

“Going into every game, you’re not thinking about scoring,” he added. “I’m just thinking about working hard and creating offensive chances. If you score, you score. As long as you win your game within the game.”

Selected eighth overall by the Leafs in 2014, Nylander seemed to improve once Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as coach. He scored a career-high 31 goals in 68 games last season before play was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nonetheless, Keefe has relentlessly pushed the 25-year-old to excel and live up to his enormous potential.

“My job, as a coach, is to push all our players when they need it,” Keefe said. “Credit goes to Will, his mindset and the work he’s put in. He’s recognized where he can be better; what he can offer to our team. He’s clearly been delivering on that since the playoffs began.”

As well as his on-ice production, Nylander has been developing into a leader.

“Will’s not a guy short on confidence,” Keefe said. “The fact he’s delivering on his end is giving him confidence to be able to push others.”

hzurkowsky@postmedia.com

twitter.com/HerbZurkowsky1

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