TORONTO – “It’s a long time till the playoffs,” said Frederik Andersen, refusing to even contemplate what it might be like for his Toronto Maple Leafs to trade chances with the Tampa Bay Lightning in a best-of-seven series.
The thought seemingly hadn’t crossed his mind.
He might be the only one inside Air Canada Centre who could claim that Monday after a lightning-fast, star-studded, back-and-forth 60 minutes between two of the top teams in hockey.
“Obviously, we’re a way better team than last year,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock concluded after a 4-3 victory. “We play better each night because we have to. Because the opponent plays way better against us.”
The Lightning have set the bar not just for the Atlantic Division, but the entire league to this point in the year. They harbour well-justified Stanley Cup aspirations. And they’ve seen the Leafs make up five points in the standings since Jan. 2, their last visit here.
It’s tightened things up in the most top-heavy division in the NHL, where Tampa, Boston and Toronto each face the prospect of having to go through one another just to reach the conference final.
No lead will be safe if the Leafs and Lightning end up colliding this spring.
There’s too much skill on either side. Too many gamebreakers. It would be appointment viewing for hockey fans even without a rooting interest.
Then it all melted away inside six minutes, with Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point skillfully working the puck around before Alex Killorn’s goal, and Kucherov burying another after a turnover, and Yanni Gourde tying it following some nice work from linemate Steven Stamkos.
Then, just as everything seemed to be collapsing on Toronto, James van Riemsdyk squeezed a rebound chance past Andrei Vasilevskiy off the rush. And Andersen closed the door for the final 15 minutes.
Never in doubt, right?
“We’ve come a long way that way, but we’re on a journey and we’ve got a long way to go,” said Babcock. “By no means are we a poised, veteran group who does it right. We still have these emotional swings in the game because we get off track. In saying all that, they’re the best team in hockey and I thought we [showed we] can skate and play with anybody.”
The result of one game in February can only tell you so much about the long-term fortunes of the teams involved. The Leafs will face a different challenge when they visit Amalie Arena on Feb. 26 and March 20 – with Lightning coach Jon Cooper taking control of the last line change, and some new faces potentially part of the matchup beyond the trade deadline.
Still, the Leafs have shown something here.
They are 8-1-0 since Babcock reimagined his lineup and built four forward lines that he’s comfortable rolling at even strength. It’s a formidable group that poses challenges even for a team as loaded as the Lightning.
“I thought we skated really well and put pressure on their ‘D’ and didn’t give their good players too much time and space,” said Matthews.
“I think we’re skating,” added Andersen, who stopped 31 shots. “I think we’re playing our game and coming back [on defence]. Especially in the first period, we were coming back and pressuring them from behind when they had the puck coming into our end. Everyone knows when we play fast and skate a lot we move the puck quick.
“That’s our strength.”
It just happens to be the same strength as a Tampa team with two of the league’s top-three point-getters in Kucherov and Stamkos, and one of its best defenceman in Hedman. Then you throw in a class goaltender like Vasilevskiy and a breakthrough performer like Point and skill throughout the lineup, and it’s little wonder why 30 teams are currently looking up at the Lightning.
They have set the bar against which the Leafs are measuring themselves. The gap seems to be narrowing, slightly.
“I think we’ve taken a step forward and there’s another level we can get to,” said Nazem Kadri. “The last month, month and a half of the season, I think you really start to challenge yourself and really push yourself to want to be the best.
“So I think it’s important for us to get in that groove, and hit that rhythm heading into the playoffs.”
They are good enough to make it a series, should they draw the Lightning when they get there. It would really be something to watch.