No team in NHL history with a chance to win a playoff series had blown a three-goal lead in the final four minutes.
Until the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night.
The Toronto Maple Leafs scored three goals in 3:34 and another in overtime to stun the Blue Jackets and force a deciding Game 5 of the qualifying round series Sunday (8 p.m. EDT, NBC Sports Network).
What will happen is anyone’s guess after the teams traded shutouts to open the series, then each erased a three-goal deficit to win in OT.
Toronto players had the benefit of getting back on the ice less than 24 hours after their blown 3-0 lead. The Blue Jackets must fight their own demons and sleepless nights to try to advance.
“You can’t dwell on things,” said Columbus captain Nick Foligno, who was in the penalty box when Auston Matthews scored on the power play in overtime in Game 4.
“It’s how you respond to adversity that’s going to allow you to have success, especially in playoffs. If there’s anything we’ve learned, that’s what makes good teams great in playoffs: They respond the right way. And I have full confidence that our team will respond the right way.”
How the Blue Jackets bounce back is a big question. Another is whether coach John Tortorella will stick with rookie goaltender Elvis Merzlikins or turn back to veteran Joonas Korpisalo, who started the series.
“It’s a strength of ours to have two goalies that can be against each other internally and both want to be No. 1,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Saturday. “I think it’s a great situation for us, and both have shown here that they’re capable of carrying that responsibility.”
Columbus could be without defenseman Zach Werenski, who left Game 4 with an undisclosed injury. Asked if there was any optimism about Werenski being available, Kekalainen said, “I guess we’ll always be optimistic, but I can’t answer that.”
The Maple Leafs have plenty of reason to be optimistic after their improbable comeback. Matthews, captain John Tavares and winger William Nylander all scored Friday night, which is the kind of production necessary for Toronto to make a lengthy postseason run.
“The effort and the commitment that we’re seeing from some guys I think are at a higher level than what we’ve seen from them before and that’s what we’ve been asking for,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.
“The key for us of course is to ride the momentum into the next game here tomorrow but recognize that it’s a fresh scoreboard, the teams have had time to regroup here and we’ve got to start anew.”
Keefe is in his first Stanley Cup playoffs as a head coach, but the Maple Leafs have lost the deciding final game of their first-round series in each of the past two years. That memory is fresh for Toronto’s core players, but their confidence is high.
“We know that we can play a great defensive game when we put our minds to it,” forward Mitch Marner said. “We know that if we play the right way defensively, we’re going to get our chances offensively.”
Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, whose Bruins eliminated the Maple Leafs with Game 7 wins in 2018 and 2019, was watching their comeback against the Blue Jackets. The Bruins face the Washington Capitals (12 p.m, NBCSN) for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and can’t face Toronto or Columbus in the first round after they finish this classic best-of-five series.
“Not surprised that series is going five games,” Cassidy said. “Maybe just surprised the way it played out the last two games. ”
The winner of Bruins-Capitals plays the New York Islanders, while the loser takes on the Carolina Hurricanes.
Also Sunday, the defending champion St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars face off with the No. 3 seed in the West at stake (3 p.m., NBC). The winner plays the Calgary Flames, while the loser plays the Vancouver Canucks.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno.
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