TAMPA – To the victor of the turtle race go the spoils. In the Eastern Conference the spoils are the second wild-card slot and the turtles in the field are, in the order of the standings at the end of business Thursday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Maple Leafs went into their game in Tampa hindmost, a point behind the other two, but a 5-0 win over the Lightning combined with the Islanders’ loss to Winnipeg moved Toronto up from 10th in the conference to eighth.
With so much on the line, fans expected a game played with a sense of desperation and a lot of passion. It was anything but.
Through the first 20 minutes the action wasn’t end-to-end so much as side-to-side. Both teams seemed so focused on not making mistakes that they avoid any remotely risky play. It was no big advertisement for the NHL game.
Not that it would have mattered to Leafs fans when Roman Polak opened the scoring nine minutes into the first period. Polak is no marksman and his goal showed no particular high-end skill if you don’t include Tyler Bozak winning the draw on the faceoff and putting the puck on a tee for the defenceman. Polak’s shot from the point bounced off Tampa Bay starter Andrei Vasilevskiy high into the air—if it had been a baseball game, the infield-fly rule would have applied. Instead it fell behind the goalie and trickled into the net, with James van Riemsdyk waving at it and probably urging it across the line.
This next note tells you all you need to know about the rhythm of the game: Polak’s goal was the Leafs’ fourth shot of the game and over the next 11 minutes they managed one more on the Tampa Bay net. And yet it never felt like they were much threatened by the home team, who themselves managed only seven shots in the first period.
As improbable as it sounds, the Lightning generated scoring chances that didn’t produce shots on goal. Shots that go wide on clean looks are just part of the business but on at least three occasions Lightning shooters went in all alone on Frederik Andersen and didn’t force the goaltender to make a stop. The most painful sequence for Tampa Bay came not to pass in the second period when Nikita Kucherov, maybe the league’s hottest shooter over the last three or four weeks, tried to deke Andersen at the edge of the crease and wound up throwing the puck into the corner, approximately 35 feet wide. It was that kind of night for the Lightning.
In the second period, everything Toronto threw at the net seemed to go in. Morgan Rielly’s goal to make it 2-0 a couple of minutes in was tough for the Bolts to take but when Matt Martin beat Vasilevskiy just 10 seconds later the rout was on. Connor Brown and van Riemsdyk added goals and commensurate insult. The Leafs held a 5-0 lead through the first 35 minutes and gave up only 14 shots in the process.
Andersen was good on a couple of occasions early and, aside from the Leafs’ 7-2 shelling in Fort Lauderdale two nights before, he has been unimpeachable lately. With a five-goal lead, the puck gets a lot bigger and a goaltender’s work easier.
The Leafs took a couple of jabs from those in social media who thought their flat-line performance against the Panthers was a by-product of a team fishing trip on their off-day. "No more fishing, just golfing," Matt Martin said. Bozak made a very thinly veiled reference to "team building" in Florida as a lead cause for the bounce-back win.
It’s easy to be light-hearted in the immediate wake of a victory and especially so after such a tidy win as Toronto’s over the Lightning, one that featured goals with all four lines on the ice at some point.
If the Leafs are at all concerned about Auston Matthews’ goalless streak, now at seven games, no one is letting on. On Thursday night coach Mike Babcock opted to put William Nylander on Matthews’ right wing to get him off the schneid. Said Martin of Matthews, who has been stuck on 31 goals for a couple of weeks: "He has been carrying us all year. He’s our catalyst."
And that might turn out to be the case down the line and if the Leafs are going to play beyond Game 82 he’ll have to loom bigger than he did on the Florida swing.
Maybe the most heartening takeaway from the win in Tampa was the fact that others found a way to step up. Rielly had his best game in a while and his goal was made possible in large part by Nazem Kadri who fed him on the point and then wreaked havoc at the edge of Vasilevskiy’s crease.
Polak was a plus-3 and the Leafs are 2-0-0 this year when he’s on the plus side by a field goal. The other time Polak went plus-three was in a thumping of the Islanders last month, so put him down as turtle poison.
Over the last five games the Leafs had what looked on paper like five winnable games (home with Detroit and Philadelphia, roadies vs the Hurricanes, Panthers and Lightning) and they wound up with four Ws, what you’d have expected that they need to stick around to make the post-season. They’ll be moving up in class when they take on Chicago at the ACC on Saturday night.