Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza continue to contribute to the Maple Leafs both off and on the ice.
Although both players each scored goals in the Leafs’ Game 4 win in Montreal on Tuesday, the duo’s leadership qualities appear to take the players to a point they haven’t been able to reach before. – overtaking the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
No one appreciates that more than Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, whose team can end their first-round streak against Montreal with a home win on Thursday night.
“I think there’s no question that a lot has happened with our team,” said Keefe on Wednesday, a non-training day for the team. “You see the growth of our squad, the maturity of our squad, the way we’ve been through the season and the start of this playoff round, the way we’ve dealt with emotional fluctuations… you can’t help but watch the contributions from our veteran players.
“Their experience, their voice, the level of calm they have in situations, their confidence in the squad, it all goes beyond their contribution on the ice. I think that’s the value of these players, and that’s why we took a step forward as a team.
“All of our players have taken a step forward in terms of responsibility, the responsibilities you have towards your teammates. It’s been really good in this area, and it’s the area of our team’s growth from last year to this year, and I think (Thornton and Spezza) in particular has really helped us in that regard.
“Whether they score or not, I believe these guys are raising the bar for everyone on our team and making us a tight knit group.”
Thornton has been able to handle the ups and downs of the series. His goal came after being on the ice for all four Montreal goals in the series. And Spezza’s scorer came after being robbed twice by Montreal goalie Carey Price, once on a safe bet, open net opportunity.
Keefe believes that dealing with key situations and emotions has allowed the Leafs to put four years of first-round playoff failure behind them.
“I certainly recognize the opportunity and the responsibility that I have as one of the leaders of the organization… this hurdle that we have to overcome here,” said the coach. “But we don’t put any of that on the players. We have a very smart group of actors who have been here for several years – this group itself, I look at it with its own identity, and not attached to anything that has happened in the past. I think it’s important within our walls, and the guys don’t wear any of those pressures.
“But as an organization we have to live up to our fans and we have given ourselves a great opportunity. There’s a reason it’s been so many years, because closing a series is a very difficult thing to do, and we respect that tremendously, and we respect our opponent, and we know tomorrow night’s game will be the most. difficult in the series. “
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