TAMPA – With the Tampa Bay Lightning holding last change and a fierce shutdown line of Alex Killorn–Anthony Cirelli–Brayden Point, Toronto Maple Leafs superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were nullified at even strength in Game 3.
When partnered with left wing Michael Bunting, who entered the post-season after missing time with an undisclosed injury, Matthews and Marner got thumped 5-1 in scoring chances.
Recognizing the issue, coach Sheldon Keefe dropped Bunting to the fourth line in the third period and elevated his dependable Swiss army knife, Alexander Kerfoot, who will start Game 4 with the big boys.
“Kerf’s a very competitive guy. He’s very responsible. He’s very good in all areas of his game, and I think that translates very well to this time of year. His details and habits are good, and those don’t change,” Keefe says.
So, what if Kerfoot made a mistake on a second-period penalty kill (turning the puck over in the neutral zone instead of safely dumping it in) that led directly to Lightning power-play goal?
Keefe spoke to the forward during the second intermission and told him to shake it off. He was getting a promotion.
“It was very obvious that he knew and was well aware of it,” Keefe says. “That doesn’t change who he is.
“I needed him to go help that line. It was a tough matchup.”
As a result, the exuberant Bunting will be relied upon to give Toronto’s fourth line a jolt of energy. Still, Keefe expects to mix in some top-six offensive starts for the rookie.
“I gotta get back to my game and what was bringing me success through the whole year,” Bunting admits. “I haven’t gotten to that yet in the playoffs.”
Keefe concedes Matthews and Marner had a “tough time” in Game 3. They were on the ice for some frightening Grade-A chances by Point, in particular. But he saw some improvement once Kerfoot jumped up.
“It seems like whatever line he’s on improves,” Keefe says. “You need to have a diverse team.
“Hockey happens. Mistakes happen…. Your depth has be versatile, or you’re locked in.”
No one in Toronto’s lineup is more versatile than centre/right wing/left wing/penalty killer/playmaker Kerfoot.
“I was talking to him,” Bunting smiles. “I think he’s only not played one position: fourth-line right wing.”
Cooper’s creative math
The excellence of Jack Campbell, who has outplayed Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy through three games, doesn’t impress Tampa coach Jon Cooper so much.
“We’ve scored seven goals on him in the past two games. So, if he’s gonna sit here and have a 3.50 goals-against average in every two-game set, we’ll take that. Has he made some saves? Sure, he has. Have we beat him? We have,” Cooper says.
“There’s always a misnomer out there that it’s the amount of goals you score. It’s the amount you prevent. And that’s where we have to be looking. Goal-scoring against these guys, that’s not a worry for me.”
Cooper’s calculation of the 3.50 GAA conveniently ignores the 5-0 shutout Campbell pitched in Game 1.
(Said a wittier reporter than me: “I only average two beers, if you start counting after midnight.”)
Keefe dismisses Cooper’s comments as a way of showing confidence in his club.
“I’m sure if I was in his position, I would say a similar thing. I think [Game 3] was a great indication of how he’s playing. He’s confident. He believes in himself. Even times when it looks like he’s beat, he finds ways to keep the puck out,” Keefe says. “Jack’s feeling good right now.”
As good as Campbell feels, Game 4 should present his toughest challenge.
Vasilevskiy and the Bolts have an incredible 15-0 streak following a playoff loss.
“I believe we have the best goalie in the world in our net,” Cooper says. “We’ve given them phenomenal looks. Like, open-net tap-ins.”
Counters Keefe: “I still feel we haven’t played our best hockey.”
Ilya Mikheyev received a gift of an empty-netter toward the conclusion of Game 3 when linemate Pierre Engvall selflessly passed the puck to him off the rush.
“I would like to maybe cut out the margin for error and just shoot it in the net, y’know? But the fact it didn’t bounce over Mickey’s stick or anything like that, we’ll take it,” Keefe smiled.
The coach was kidding not kidding.
“You need to be selfless at this time of year. There’s a lot of little thing that happen in the game that are selfless: block a shot, being on the defensive side of the puck, changing early. Little moments like that show this team is unified.”
Engvall has quietly had a phenomenal series. Not only does he have three assists in three games, he leads Toronto in 5-on-5 ice time, and shots are 23-16 when he’s on the ice despite his only starting 14 per cent of shifts in the O-zone.
“He’s a tremendous player,” William Nylander says.
Lightning focused on discipline
Cooper believes Tampa Bay lost Game 3 due to penalties. Simple.
They gave the Maple Leafs five power plays in the first two periods, and Toronto opened the scoring with a man-advantage goal.
“Let’s be honest. Can’t spend 10 of the first 40 minutes in the penalty box,” Cooper says.
“There’s probably a little uncertainty with what the players can and can’t do, which is unfortunate. But you have to fight through that. But there’s a lot of our game that we like. The Leafs – give them credit – have taken advantage of situations we’ve given to them, probably at a bigger rate than normal.
“We’ve given up some juicy ones, and they’ve capitalized.”
Cooper notes that in the Penguins-Rangers triple-overtime match (Game 1), no whistles were blown after the second period.
“How does that game not get a call for five-and-a-half periods?” Cooper wonders. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Ultimately, the coach says his players must be smarter.
“We have a recipe. We have a plan. We’ve been in these situations before,” Cooper says. “We’ll bounce back.
“Don’t look through the rear-view mirror. That’s not our style.”
One-Timers: Insane stat. Game 3 winning-goal getter David Kämpf has more goals scored (two) than he has offensive zone starts (one) in the series…. The Lightning gave its players the option to stay home on Mother’s Day. No mandatory meetings or skate…. Nikta Kucherov and Vasilevskiy both skipped practice Saturday to rest…. Neither the Maple Leafs nor Lightning will make any lineup changes, according to the coaches.
Maple Leafs projected Game 4 lines
Kerfoot – Matthews – Marner
Nylander – Tavares – Kase
Mikheyev – Kämpf – Engvall
Bunting – Blackwell – Spezza
Rielly – Lyubushkin
Muzzin – Brodie
Giordano – Holl