Coach Sheldon Keefe knows the hardest work is yet to come for his Toronto Maple Leafs.

After blanking the Montreal Canadiens 4-0 on Tuesday, the Leafs are up 3-1 in the best-of-seven first-round North Division series and on the brink of advancing in the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

The Canadiens, though, aren't about to surrender heading into Thursday's Game 5.

“We know they're going to compete really hard tomorrow, look to make things difficult on us,” Keefe said Wednesday. “We've got to anticipate it's going to be another very tight game and we have to be prepared for it. It's going to be the most difficult game of the series.”

Difficult games are nothing new for the Leafs, who've experienced ample playoff heartbreak in the past.

Toronto was ousted from the first round in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the last two in seven-game losses to Boston. Last year, the team battled the Columbus Blue Jackets in the play-in round, losing in a gritty five-game series.

“There's a reason it's been this many years,” Keefe said. “It's because closing out a series is a difficult thing to do. And we respect that greatly, respect our opponent.”

The coaching staff have been careful not to place the pressure of the past on the shoulders of current players, Keefe said. But the Leafs are well aware of what's at stake when they step on the ice on Thursday.

Winning a playoff series has been a prime objective for the team all season, said William Nylander.

“Obviously that's been our goal,” he said. “We've got a big goal and that's one small step on the road that we want to accomplish.”

The 25-year-old right-winger heads into Game 5 on a four-game scoring streak, having put up a goal in each of the first four matchups in the Original Six series. He also added an assist in Toronto's 5-1 win on Saturday.

“Going into every game, you're not thinking about scoring,” said Nylander, who had 42 points (17 goals and 25 assists) through 51 regular-season games. “I'm just thinking about working hard and creating offensive chances. If you score, you score. I mean, as long as you win your game within the game.”

Nylander has grown this season after recognizing where he could be better and what he can offer the team, Keefe said.

“He's had some really great moments where he's done a terrific job for us,” the coach said. “We know what his skill set is and what he can do. When he does little things on top of that, the results just seem to follow.”“

His offensive outburst has been timely, with Montreal largely containing Toronto's top two scorers, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Matthews, who led the NHL in goals with 41 in the regular season, has just three points (one goal, two assists) in the playoffs while Marner has three assists.

Still, the Leafs have outscored the Canadiens 12-4 over four games.

The goal drought comes down to confidence, said Montreal defenceman Ben Chiarot.

“It's a funny thing - when you have it, you feel like you'll have it forever and when you don't, you feel like you're looking for it forever,” he said. “We need to find some confidence offensively, make some more plays and be more dangerous offensively.”

Heading into what could be their final game of the season, the Habs are looking inward and not giving the Leafs too much respect, said forward Tyler Toffoli.

“We've got to play our game and worry about ourselves, take it shift by shift,” he said. “It sounds cliche but that's kind of the way we have to play. We just have to be confident in our own abilities and go from there.”

The Leafs have been getting a boost of confidence from their sidelined captain, John Tavares, who left Game 1 on a stretcher after taking a knee to the face in Game 1. The 30-year-old centre is expected to miss two weeks with a knee injury and a concussion, but he's still found ways to connect with his teammates.

“We get text messages from him before every game reminding us of what we need to do out there and what our mindset needs to be like. He's been a huge support and obviously he's been on FaceTime after the wins in the locker room,” Nylander said. “So he's there every moment.”

Tavares made an in-person appearance at the Leafs' training facility on Wednesday, Keefe said, “re-acclimating himself with the group.”

“For him to still be showing those leadership qualities that he has at this time of year is really important,” the coach said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2021.