TORONTO – The interesting thing about Jon Cooper making an excuse for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fatigue after trouncing all over them for 60 minutes in their own building is that the Tampa Bay Lightning have never felt the need to play that card.
In the losers’ dressing room, there were admissions of quit and lethargy as the Leafs — on track for another best regular season in club history and another third-place finish in their own top-heavy division — gave away 21 pucks, mustered all of 14 body checks, and surrendered one of the ugliest shorthanded goals you’ll see en route to a 6-2 beatdown by a polished armoured tank of a hockey team that’s breaking wills and records.
“The effort kind of just wasn’t there at times,” Auston Matthews admitted. “I mean, I think in the third period we pretty much just quit. That’s on us as players. We got to wake up and do a much better job and hold each other accountable.”
Twenty-five minutes into the game it wasn’t one anymore.
The mighty Bolts had already scored four times, each puck touching a Tampa skater within spitting distance of Frederik Andersen’s crease, and chased the Leafs netminder.
Mike Babcock so rarely pulls his starter, this was the equivalent of waving a white flag in surrender to a program he’d dubbed “the envy of the league right now.”
“You get the lead like that, and it’s a little deflating to them,” reasoned Cooper, citing his opponents’ exhausting swing through Western Canada. “I like the fact we kept going. We possessed the puck.”
Thing is, in this ridiculously consistent runaway Year of the Lightning, they never had a so-called “schedule loss” this lopsided.
In October, when the Lightning returned East from a five-game voyage through the Central and Western states, they whooped New Jersey 8-3.
To celebrate their first home date after a four-game roadie in November, they beat up Florida 7-3.
In December, the Lightning were greeted home after long trips by Boston and Philadelphia, who were already in Tampa waiting for them. The Bolts won both of those games, too — one of them after an even longer trek through Western Canada than the Leafs just endured (it also included a stop in Winnipeg).
In January, after their swing through California, the Lightning shut out Columbus 4-0.
This is not to say the Leafs weren’t exhausted or depleted. Most certainly they were.
This is to say that pushing through that pain and fatigue requires a roster depth and a desire and a level of perseverance only one of Monday’s NHL powers seems to have attained.
“Like today: How good we are when we play the right way,” said Victor Hedman, excelling in his top lefty-lefty pairing with young Mikhail Sergachev.
“Our consistency throughout the season has been phenomenal. We’re not tapping ourselves on the shoulder. We’re looking at the big picture. We’ve got  games here before the fun starts.”
The business-as-usual atmosphere in the moments after a such a decisive victory over a potential playoff foe is arresting. No hooting or hollering. Another day, another victory.
“Tonight we really wanted to show them that’s why we’re the best team in the league,” Cedric Paquette said after a two-goal outing. But that’s as juicy as things got.
We suppose when you’ve had your heart snapped in the conference finals twice (2016, 2018), whiffed entirely on the post-season as a consensus Cup contender (2017) and come within two W’s of your ultimate goal (2015), perspective digs its blades in.
“We’re trying to build a program like Tampa has done. You need some wounds and all that stuff, and you go through that over the years as you build your program,” Babcock said.
“They have a real good team, a veteran-laden team. They’ve done a good job keeping their players and acquiring more players. Obviously, they’ve scouted real good, so they could trade and get more players.”
It’s no secret the Kyle Dubas Maple Leafs are following the Tampa blueprint.
Kill your enemies with speed, skill and superior goaltending. Fuel your roster by graduating AHLers as talented as they are cap-friendly. Then splash the pot by adding difference-makers like Ryan McDonagh (two assists, plus-3 Monday) and J.T. Miller via trade.
Construct a powerhouse that can rank first-overall in both power play and penalty kill, that can register its 16th game in which its offence explodes for six or more goals.
Tyler Johnson (two goals) snuffed out the suggestion that the Lightning benefitted from some lucky deflections.
“You can look at it as fluky, but we’re in the right spots for those to be able to happen. That’s what happens at the end of the season and in the playoffs — a lot of times it is the garbage goals that go in. We’ve got to try to play more hockey that way,” Johnson said. “We’ve had a good season, but we really haven’t done anything.
“We just want to be better tomorrow than what we are today, and I think we’ve been doing that.”
So, is there anything the Lightning can learn about the Leafs on a night where they forecheck, backcheck, penalty-kill and cycle their high-flying rival into submission?
“Honestly, not much,” Johnson said. “Playoffs and regular season are completely different. If you ask them, they didn’t play a playoff game. If you ask us, we didn’t either.
“Both teams still have a lot left in the tank in that regard. We’re just trying to work on little things right now.”
Toronto still has a few big things to worry about.