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Maple Leafs prepare for Game 7 test with Auston Matthews doubtful

Toronto has clawed its way back into the Stanley Cup first-round playoff series against Boston with back-to-back victories in elimination games to force a decisive Game 7 in Boston on Saturday.

But the Leafs’ path from trailing the Bruins 3-1 to a do-or-die winner-take-all exit might have been the easy part. What comes next (in fact, shutting down Boston and advancing to the second round for the second time since 2004) will be a completely different battle.

“All we’ve done is dig ourselves out of the hole we created,” Sheldon Keefe said Friday. “We haven’t accomplished enough of what we set out to do. Now comes the real test and the real opportunity.”

What’s less clear is whether Toronto’s best player will return to the lineup for Game 7. Auston Matthews has been sidelined with what the Leafs called a “lingering” illness since pulling him out of the third period of Game 4. He has been skating with the Toronto assistant. coaches since then, but Matthews was ruled out for Games 5 and 6. There seemed to be hope that Matthews could return for Game 7.

“There has been progress,” Keefe said Friday. “He skated here again today, but his availability has not been determined.”

Toronto has already had to change its forwards throughout the series to accommodate William Nylander who missed Games 1, 2 and 3 with an undisclosed injury. It was Nylander who propelled the Leafs to a 2-1 victory in Game 6 on Thursday by scoring both goals.

Keefe noted that the Leafs haven’t faced an opponent that’s desperate to keep their own season alive. When he reflected on Toronto’s situation on Thursday, Keefe said he felt like the Leafs just played two Game 7s to get to the real situation. And when they actually do, for once, the Bruins will have no excuse not to match Toronto’s level of urgency.

Boston coach Jim Montgomery has expressed frustration with how the Bruins came out in Game 5 and Game 6, being outshot by a combined 23-3 in those early periods. The Bruins’ best skaters have also been quiet, leading Montgomery to publicly criticize star winger David Pastrnak after Game 6 for needing to “step up.”

There is pressure, and a painful history, for both teams heading into Game 7. Toronto is 1-4 against Boston in series that have lasted seven games, including back-to-back first-round losses in 2018 and 2019. Meanwhile, the The Bruins would live in infamy with a loss Saturday as the only NHL, MLB or NBA team in history to blow consecutive 3-1 series leads in the playoffs (Boston was up by that margin over Florida in the first round last year before finally being scrapped in Game 7).

While Montgomery may acknowledge the issues Boston has faced, he is convinced the Bruins are taking steps to address those issues.

“We’re already doing some things to change what we hope (will create) a different start,” Montgomery said. “I am an opportunistic and positive person. Although I am angry and frustrated at times, I look for ways to improve and get out of this. How are we going to improve?”

That’s exactly the question he’s asked Pastrnak and the rest of Boston’s top players. Pastrnak has generated two goals and four points in the series, but did not appear on the scoresheet in Games 5 and 6. Brad Marchand has also failed to be the difference maker he was earlier in the series, producing three goals and eight points. when Boston had the opportunity to send Toronto packing.

Montgomery said the message he delivered after Thursday’s game about Pastrnak is the same one he brought to the Bruins’ room.

“I talked to (Pastrnak) right after the game about it,” Montgomery said. “I talked to him about it during the game. Pasta and I have a very healthy, communicative relationship, and he’s ready to go.”

Toronto’s power play hasn’t been ready to go. He is 1 for 20 in the playoffs.

Keefe downplayed how ineffective the man advantage has been and stated that he still had time to come back as well.

“We’re not going to turn down the power play, no,” Keefe said jokingly. “We’ve changed things a lot. It’s a combination of giving the guys a really good recipe and a good plan and making adjustments, but also showing confidence, faith and belief. As you’ve seen in our 5 on 1 5 games and our penalty kills the last two games. You see the confidence that comes through faith. The power play doesn’t have that better moment to happen than Game 7. You talk about moments: the power “In a moment like this, the game is.” can materialize and one can quickly forget everything that happened before.

What the Leafs don’t want is to lose their edge, more specifically, the tenacity that put the Bruins on the ropes with a late fight in Boston.

“We still have work to do,” Morgan Rielly said. “There are not many changes in our approach or our mentality. We are in a position where, if we win, we are alive; if we lose, we are dead. That’s where we have been the last two games and I think we have performed well in those circumstances.”