"John's time is going to come," Sheldon Keefe told reporters on the morning of a pivotal Game 5 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning.
"And that's good news for us"
Behind closed doors, one can only imagine that the Maple Leafs are praying to whichever Hockey God will listen that their captain's time comes sooner rather than later.
They need it to, really. Four back-and-forth games into the series, and John Tavares sits goalless to this point with just two assists to his name, with his lone primary helper coming on Sunday night with the game largely out of reach.
Tavares hasn't just struggled with the box score numbers, either. The Maple Leafs have been out-scored and out-chanced in Tavares' even-strength minutes in the series thus far, with the captain producing an expected-goals and scoring-chance-for share of just 46.92 percent and 38.78 percent, respectively.
That simply cannot continue. Not if the Maple Leafs intend to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades. This team needs its stars to show up. And more than halfway through an era-defining series against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, one of their biggest and brightest simply hasn't.
At least, not where it matters most.
Tavares' struggles haven't wavered the Maple Leafs' faith in him, though. He is and always has been the intrinsic heart of the club's leadership core, acting as the silent leader that leads by example and speaks up when needed.
By all accounts, Tavares has reportedly stayed consistent in his approach despite his underwhelming stat line. And his teammates admire him for it.
"Same guy as always," described Mitch Marner of his captain amidst his offensive slump.
"Same attitude. Nothing's changed with him. So, it's something great to see. Obviously, I'm sure he puts a lot on himself, like all of us do. But he's done a great job in our locker room leading, saying the right things. And on the ice, he's competing. Stuff hasn't fallen for him, but I'm sure it will."
Game 5 could not be a better time for that to happen.
The Maple Leafs signed Tavares precisely for moments like this. Not just to show up on the biggest stage. But to give them an edge no one else has. The intent behind dedicating such a massive chunk of cap space to three offensively-minded players is to effectively guarantee no opponent can out-match you. Tavares is like a high-priced safety net, then -- an insurance policy on Toronto's ability to generate offense. While the Lightning's Anthony Cirelli-led shutdown unit gives the Matthews-Marner line fits on a nightly basis, Tavares' line should therefore have the wiggle room to feast on lesser competition, ensuring that the Leafs are still capable of throwing wave after wave of elite firepower at their opponent even in the moments they seem to have the upper hand.
That plan doesn't work when the safety net isn't fully deployed.
Matthews and Marner have undoubtedly drawn the toughest matchup of the Leafs' forward corps through the first four games of the series, with the Lightning managing to bottle them up particularly well in Game 4 to the tune of a shared 45.40 percent expected goals share at even-strength. Even still, the pair have only continued to lead the team in scoring with identical six-point outputs heading into Game 5, doing the bulk of their damage at five-on-five as well with four even-strength points apiece.
Given the circumstances, that's an incredibly positive development.
Although Toronto's top line has been countered quite well by a stringent Tampa attack, they haven't been completely neutralized, either. And if that trend continues as the series wears on, one can only imagine just how much deadlier the entire Leafs' lineup will be if Tavares re-discovers his groove.
Keefe is all-too-aware of that possibility, despite still trying to maintain perspective.
"As much as it's the playoffs and you'd want everyone to be rolling and everyone to have over a point-per-game, that's not really the reality of how the league works," Keefe explained.
"To me, John's worked hard and done good things. To me, he made an elite, elite, elite play to Willy on the goal we scored in the third period the other night. He's doing a lot of little things we're asking him to do because, as this series goes on, he's going to have a lot of opportunities to make a difference"
If the Maple Leafs want this series to indeed go on, that opportunity begins tonight.
Tavares is a capable player, one who's performed quite well in the postseason throughout his career and is attuned to the pressures that come with playing hockey this time of year. He didn't earn his $11 million annual price tag by accident. Even in a supposed "off year", the guy scored at a point-per-game pace.
But reputations and track records give way to results once the postseason begins. And if the Maple Leafs hope to conquer the demons that have followed them around since 2004, they'll need one of their biggest guns to start producing some.
That's a bet they're willing to take.