TAMPA – Reminders were everywhere, like blue-and-white sweaters.
For anyone tempted to sleep on the Tampa Bay Lightning as a legitimate title threat (again), it is time to wipe the crust out your eyes and chug a double espresso.
Sure, it’s understandable why the defending champions have slinked into the shadows of late. None of their stars appear in line for individual trophies, and they won’t claim home-ice advantage in Round 1.
Heck, they haven’t even been the most dominant or most entertaining hockey show in their own (tax-free!) state during the regular season.
But from the moment they jumped onto the ice Thursday to the thumping blare of Drake’s “Back to Back,” throughout their 8-1 beatdown of the higher-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs, the two-time Stanley Cup champions fired signs to fans and foes alike.
Yes, these guys are built for a serious stab at the unthinkable: a threepeat.
Fast and physical, the Lightning issued a message to their visitors from the North ahead of a potential first-round matchup that feels increasingly likely by the night.
Andrei Vasilevsky, the most bona fide Number 1 in the league, was dialled in. Tampa’s defenders made it uncomfortable to drive net-front. The Bolts’ explosive power-play clicked thrice in frightening fashion.
And once they had the decision in a stranglehold, they happily piled on more goals and hopped in another scrum.
“They were obviously the more desperate team,” Toronto’s Mark Giordano said. “They played a hard game; they did a lot of a lot of things right. But we didn't get to our game at all.
“We can definitely learn from it.”
“You get a little sample of how hard you need to play and how well you need to play to be able to beat a team of that quality when they're playing at that level,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.
“To me, it was clear that the game meant more to them than it did to us. It showed in how they played, how they competed.”
In a battle of hockey’s two most potent offences of the past five years, it was the Lightning that erupted for four goals in the second period, essentially ending the tilt halfway through. Then popping a couple more before Period 3 was five minutes old.
The Bolts generated 48 scoring chances, 21 of them high-danger, per NaturalStatTrick.com, and happily engaged the Leafs in a physical affair that finished with a silly 114 penalty minutes.
Alex Killorn tipped an Erik Cernak point shot to break things open. Ross Colton and Nikita Kucherov each whacked in their 20th of the season. And captain Steven Stamkos made beautiful history, blasting his patented one-kneed one-timer to break pal Martin St. Louis’ all-time franchise record for points (954).
"He's got that one-timer that, anywhere on that left side of the ice, it's got a possibility of going in," said Mitch Marner, who grew up an admirer.
There was some poetry seeing Stamkos accomplish the feat thanks to a crisp passing sequence from longtime friends Kucherov and Victor Hedman.
The latter labelled it “perfect” that Stamkos, a proud Markham, Ont., native, would celebrate the occasion against his hometown team. The organization that once tried to lure him away in free agency.
“What else can you say about Stammer?” coach Jon Cooper said.
“He's been a consummate pro. I've watched him come from a wide-eyed renegade kid to now a mature captain, father, and it's been amazing. We've been together a decade, so I've watched a lot of his points. And nobody [is] prouder than myself to watch him break it.”
To be fair, the Maple Leafs started backup Erik Källgren and gave Auston Matthews another night to heal from his undisclosed injury.
The Lightning also played without their top centre, Brayden Point (day to day, lower body), but after getting run around by the Leafs in their own barn a couple weeks ago, Tampa needed and wanted this one more.
Few on the outside understand the plight of the Maple Leafs better than Cooper, who guided a seriously skilled nucleus through many a postseason disappointment before they finally broke through big-time.
"I don't think anything you say about the Leafs is going to matter to anybody in this room... unless they do better in the playoffs," Cooper said.
"Everybody here is saying that about them. I see a helluva hockey team. They've been a helluva a hockey team that has run into some bad breaks come the spring."
Cooper isn’t sure why the Maple Leafs have been unable to get over the hump, but he believes they have the pieces to do so.
“There's some similarities in that they pretty much kept their core together like we did back in 2019. You don't really judge yourself on one spring,” Cooper said.
"They beat good teams. They play with structure. I think they're as good a team as we've played all year, but they'd probably judge [things] more on how they do in the spring."
Not how they do in an essentially inconsequential game as they play out the string.
“We’ve been playing really good hockey,” Wayne Simmonds said. “This was a one-off. I think it’s pretty easy to park.”
Cooper agreed: “Don't read too much into it. It was one game.”
Tampa’s victory, combined with Boston’s loss to Pittsburgh earlier in the evening, further increased odds that fans will be treated to an all Blue and White series.
Should be a doozy.
“We know what we can do to be successful,” Hedman reminded. “It's all about sticking to that. It feels like when the playoff starts, it's a different ballgame. But we really want to get into that mentality right now.”
For Tampa, Thursday’s effort was a convincing step toward that end.
For Toronto, a cold reminder to not take this snoozing giant lightly.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Matthews buzzed around Amalie Arena Thursday morning but watched a third straight game from the sidelines, letting an undisclosed injury heal.
“Did you watch the morning skate?” Keefe asked, rhetorically. "He's really close. He's on the ice. He's getting his touches and all that. But, again, we're in a similar place to where we were a couple days ago in terms of it not making sense to put him in the lineup at this point.”
• Jack Campbell — winner of six consecutive starts since returning from a rib injury at the top of the month — has been enrolled in Toronto’s load management program with the Leafs’ playoff spot secure.
The club did not want Campbell starting Sunday in Washington on a back-to-back with long travel (and, we’re guessing, risking another Tom Wilson collision).
“That was the one game, for certain, we didn't want Jack to play. We worked backwards from there,” Keefe said.
With the goalies alternating starts this week, Campbell gets the tap Saturday in Sunrise.
• Well over 2,000 folks responded to this poll I posted on the Maple Leafs’ ideal Round 1 opponent. A little surprised to see the Bruins received nearly double the votes than the Bolts.
Despite an uneven performance down the stretch — four wins in their past 10 games — the champs are still commanding respect.
• Quote of the Day.
“You could give him a righthanded stick and he'd score.” —Jon Cooper on Auston Matthews
• We’re totally going to see a second Wayne Simmonds–Pat Maroon scrap in May, aren’t we?