TAMPA, Fla. – You can look at the standings and think there’s a heck of a chance that there’s every chance that the Tampa Bay Lightning will meet up with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the post-season – could be the first round, could be the second. One thing is for sure: Tampa Bay’s 4-3 shoot-out win over Toronto at Amalie Arena will be of little use for handicapping purposes. The victory moved the home team five points clear of the Leafs in the Atlantic Division.
Both teams were missing significant pieces, critical pieces.
In the case of Toronto hors de combat was la vedette. Auston Matthews, no less than the most effective even-strength forward in the league, remains on the sidelines with a bum shoulder.
William Nylander filled in for Matthews at centre on a line with Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen and was a minus-two for the night. Toronto coach Mike Babcock gave Nylander reviews that were a step down from lukewarm.
“I didn’t think William was as good as he was [in the win over Boston] the other night,” Babcock said.
The coach suggested that it was hard to get a read on how well the line will mesh down the line, simply because of Nylander’s individual struggles. Harsh, but true. As good as Nylander might play down the middle in time, it’s a step down in class when he subs for last year’s Calder Trophy winner.
The home team played most of the night without likely Hart Trophy candidate Nikita Kucherov, he of 33 goals and 82 points this season, who played six shifts in the first period and wasn’t seen on the bench after the first intermission. It was impossible to tell what was ailing him – on his last shift, there didn’t seem to be any conspicuous contact.
His injury was being categorized as an upper-body injury – thus could be back for the Lightning’s next game or gone for good.
Those who did play put on an entertaining if somewhat frantic 65 minutes of end-to-end action. Tampa Bay outshot the Leafs 42-30, a fair measure of the balance of play, and Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen gave his side a not fully deserved chance to come away with two points.
Babcock wasn’t impressed by it, mind you.
“I don’t think this was one of our better games,” he said.
True, but context please.
Babcock’s team had won nine of its previous ten games. Also, worth noting is the fact that the Leafs were able to salvage a point against Tampa despite trailing 3-2 going into the third period – the Lightning were 28-1-1 this season when leading after 40 minutes. Thus, in defeat, some solace could be taken away. Buck up, coach.
The Leafs made it 3-3 a little over five minutes into the third period on a power-play goal by Tyler Bozak, who wasn’t traded on yet another deadline despite rumours abounding. Bozak finished off a great set-up by Mitchell Marner, who first faked a shot and got Andrei Vasilevskiy to bite and then slid the puck over to Bozak who had a yawning cage in front of him.
Marner was all over the place for the evening. The game opened with teams trading goals on deflected shots, Chris Kunitz for the home team, James van Riemsdyk for the vistors. Then, midway through the first period, Marner was credited with his 17th goal despite never getting his stick on the puck – a centering pass from Jake Gardiner went in off the forward’s skate.
Marner could have easily had a hat trick for the night.
Late in the second period the puck came to rest right on the goal line and Vasilevskiy was over at the other side of the net, helpless watching Marner and Victor Hedman racing for the puck. Despite Marner’s desperation dive, Hedman swatted the puck away with not five-one-hundredths of a second to spare. Then, with seven minutes to go in regulation, Marner was hooked by Hedman on a breakaway and was awarded a penalty shot – snake eyes on the deke attempt.
Tyler Johnson and Adam Erne scored in the second to send the Lightning into the lead. After Bozak’s tying goal came an overtime that was absolutely slapstick – Patrick Marleau was so gassed on a breakaway that it felt like you were watching him age with each stride.
Brayden Point was the lone marksman in the shoot-out who found the net and thus Tampa’s lead is now five instead of three points.
All of this is to say: You can’t imagine that games in a matchup in the post-season will look much like this.
You hope Matthews and Kucherov will be hale and present, just because they’d raise the level of the play.
The Lightning are counting on rolling out a player who has yet to dress for them, a player whose value is a hypothetical for now. Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman acquired New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh about four hours before the drop of the puck, just as the window for trades was slamming shut.
In the Lightning’s win, you could get a pretty good idea of how McDonagh will upgrade the Tampa Bay’s blue-line. A left-handed shot, McDonagh joins a depth chart on that side of the ice – Hedman leads the way but McDonagh projects to an absolutely top-drawer second D-man, ahead of Mikhail Sergachev and Braydon Coburn.