Maple Leafs force Game 5, stay alive thanks to unbelievable comeback

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were four minutes away from being completely buried.

Four minutes away from having the longest offseason this core of players had ever had to deal with in terms of criticism and scrutiny.

Four minutes away from maybe dealing with the possibility of major changes coming to a team that — to this point — has been unable to get over the hump in the postseason.

That is when the madness started.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just 24 hours after blowing a three-goal lead to lose in overtime, the Maple Leafs flipped the script and erased a three-goal deficit with four minutes to play in regulation to force overtime. It was there that they completed one of the most improbable comebacks in postseason history when Auston Matthews scored a power play to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 win.

And with that, everything comes down to a winner-take-all Game 5 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET – NBCSN) for the right to advance to the field of 16 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It really cannot be overstated as to how insane all of this was, and the perfect confluence of events that needed to happen for Toronto to win this game.

For 56 minutes the Maple Leafs were unable to solve Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, and when Boone Jenner scored with under seven minutes to play in the third period to give his team a three-goal lead everything seemed over in Toronto.

But with Frederik Andersen pulled for the extra attacker, Toronto started to chip away.

William Nylander started the comeback with 3:57 to play when he scored a goal that — at the time — seemed to be pointless window dressing.

When John Tavares scored less than a minute later to cut the deficit to one, things really started to get interesting.

Even then Toronto needed some extra help to go its way.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Game 3 hero for Columbus, had an opportunity to put the game away with an empty-net sitting in front of him, only to have his shot hit the outside of the net. Just a few moments later, Gustav Nyquist failed to gain the red line with the puck when he could have taken a shot at another empty net and gave the puck away, giving Toronto another chance.

The Maple Leafs did not waste the chance. With just 23 seconds to play in regulation Zach Hyman scored the game-tying goal to send the game to overtime. Matthews scored midway through the period, capitalizing on a Nick Foligno tripping penalty.

During their late third period comeback Toronto had the same combination of players on the ice: Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, and Morgan Rielly.

With that, Toronto now has a chance to salvage what could have been a disastrous postseason appearance. And who knows, if they lose Game 5 on Sunday all of the things mentioned up at the top (the criticism, the scrutiny, the potential changes) could still happen. This is, after all, a team that is supposed to compete for a Stanley Cup. Losing in the play-in round after three straight Round 1 exits would be awful for the perception of this core. But this win gives them a chance to fight another day and change the narrative around this team. If they do manage to do that and go on a postseason run from here, those four minutes are going be talked about for years.

As for Columbus, well, this has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares.

They had this game — and the series — all but won. If you go buy the win probability stat, they had a 99.3 percent chance of winning this game with five minutes to play.

All they had to do was avoid a meltdown, and they would have been a giant slayer for the second year in a row. But the meltdown happened.

The Blue Jackets were never supposed to be in this position this season after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene to free agency, and then dealing with a season-long run of injuries. No one would have blamed them or given it a second thought if they badly regressed or fell off the map. If they are unable to bounce back in Game 5 on Sunday this is going to be the game that will be impossible for them to shake. It was right there. They had it.

Now it all comes down to Sunday.

Honestly, it is the perfect game — and perfect series — for the unpredictable mayhem that the 2019-20 season has been.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 [OT] (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 [OT]
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs (if necessary), TBD

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.