The Toronto Maple Leafs played a strong defensive game to take Game 4 on the road against the Florida Panthers. What was different about that game was the Maple Leafs started young rookie goalie Joseph Woll in their crease. He had a solid game and made an impressive playoff debut.
Tonight, the series continues back home on the Maple Leafs ice. Can the team now build off its Game 4 success to win another game to stay alive? Can they perhaps even turn the tide in their favour?
Woll’s Play in Game 4 Was Exceptionally Solid
Woll’s play in his first playoff start was exceptional. There’s no question in my mind that the team rose up to help protect him; however, perhaps that in itself was a reason for his success. Still, despite all the pressure that comes with playoff hockey – especially playing in a must-win game, Woll displayed a level of composure that was not representative of his youth or lack of experience on the big stage.
Clearly, Woll has both the confidence and skill he needs to win high-stakes games. I heard Hockey Night in Canada analyst Dallas Eakins in an interview with Sportsnet Central discuss what’s impressed him about Woll. Eakins couldn’t help but wonder about the influence of his mental coach on the youngster. To Eakins, Woll seemed calmer and more collected than he should have for a player of his age.
The Maple Leafs as a Team Played Solid Defense
Obviously, Woll’s success can’t be attributed only to his individual skill and attributes. The Maple Leafs’ defence played a crucial role in supporting their rookie goalie. Their commitment to his protection allowed him to settle into his game. And, as he did he gained even more confidence.
If the Blue and White continue playing with such strong support, there’s a good chance the team can continue to show success in tonight’s game. There really is no other choice.
The Maple Leafs Are in a Unique Situation
The Maple Leafs find themselves in a unique situation. Obviously, other teams (the Vegas Golden Knights, for example) have juggled their goalies and faced tough circumstances. However, the Maple Leafs have put their trust in an inexperienced goalie at a time when they really have to win to stay alive.
In Game 4, that decision paid off. Now we’ll see how the Panthers respond.
Is the Pressure Beginning to Shift to Florida?
As the series progresses, Eakins noted that the dynamics of pressure have begun to shift. The Panthers had embraced the underdog role early but now everyone – including most Maple Leafs’ fans – expects them to win this series. Such a change in expectations can profoundly impact Florida’s mindset and performance.
On the Maple Leafs’ part, they were on the edge of being swept but demonstrated their determination to quit. They won on the road; and, with one more win could they even begin to seize the momentum of the series on their home ice?
In the interview, Eakins was clear that pressure is important and the team that bears the brunt of that pressure might find it a tough load to carry easily. He noted that Toronto has nothing to lose and everything to gain, so they can approach the game with a sense of freedom. They’ve defied the odds and showcased their resilience.
Now it’s the Panthers who now find themselves on the spot. The weight of being the favoured team rests on their shoulders, testing their mental fortitude.
Eakins Also Noted How Crucial the Fanbase Would Be in Toronto
One interesting part of the interview was the conversation about how important the Maple Leafs fans would be. If the fans are enthusiastic and supportive, as a crowd they can create an electric atmosphere during tonight’s home game. That in itself could provide an extra boost to the players’ confidence and motivation.
Obviously Success in Round 2 Is a Long-Shot
Even if Woll has another remarkable playoff performance, winning Round 2 will be tough for the Maple Leafs. Only four teams have ever come back from a three-game-to-zero deficit to win.
That said, who doesn’t remember the “Miracle on Ice” during the 1980 Olympics when an undermanned US Olympic hockey team beat the highly-favored Soviet team? If the Maple Leafs can put up a solid defensive effort and if Woll can do his Game 4-thing one more time, perhaps there’s a chance for one more exciting victory.
If Eakins is correct, the pressure now rests on the Panthers to prove themselves. They are the favoured team. As the series shifts to Toronto, the Maple Leafs have a chance to build on their momentum and make a comeback.
We’ll soon see if there’s going to be a Game 6 in Florida later this weekend. One can hope.