Maple Leafs can’t locate killer instinct in embarrassing Game 4 no-show

Ross Colton scored twice while Nikita Kucherov collected two assists as the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-3 and made the first-round series even at 2-2.

TAMPA – In the pall of all those saddened, shortened springs, a recurring phrase would pop out of the mouths of various Toronto Maple Leafs players and brass that paid them.

Killer instinct.

As in, they needed to summon it, somehow, some way.

In 2017, when Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner were kids with blinding futures and no expectations, Toronto jumped to a 2-1 series lead over the mighty Washington Capitals. The Leafs dropped three in row. A lesson.

In 2018, the Maple Leafs carried a 4-3 lead into the third period of Game 7 in Boston. The Bruins scored the next four goals.

In 2019, Toronto held series leads of 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 over those same Bruins and failed to close the deal.

In 2021, they coughed up a 3-1 series advantage to the lowest-seeded playoff team.

As if playing a sick joke on their fans, they’ve kept dreaming up creative new ways to unravel. To shrink from the grandest moments.

That cutthroat intangible was nowhere to be found.

Flash forward to the now: Entering Sunday’s Game 4 the Maple Leafs had comported themselves well, full value in building 1-0 and 2-1 series leads.

Yet presented with a second opportunity to seize a stranglehold, the Maple Leafs couldn’t locate their treasured killer instinct in Tampa Bay if they were spotted on a pirate map with GPS.

They got absolutely sonned on Mother’s Day.

From the very first shift of the champions’ 7-3 pasting of the Leafs, the Lightning were the aggressor, the dictator in pace, precision, and purpose.

Why didn’t the Leafs bring any killer instinct?

“Tampa was really good tonight” was coach Sheldon Keefe’s answer.

Knowing full well the desperate Lightning would mount a vicious push from puck drop, Keefe curiously started his third defence pairing of Mark Giordano and Justin Holl.

They were immediately hemmed in and overwhelmed to the point where Tampa was able to make a line change before captain Steven Stamkos slammed home his first of the series — on the game’s first shot.

Before the Maple Leafs registered their second shot of the night, the score was already 3-zip. After 40 minutes, 5-0.

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“It’s disappointing. We battled hard [Friday] night to be in the position we were in. We knew they were going to come hard. We just weren’t ready for it,” Jake Muzzin said.

“They came out hot. We were on our heels, chasing the game. You get down early, it’s tough to come back.”

The Lightning whipped through the offensive zone as if they had E-ZPasses stitched into the fabric of their sweaters. They gained net access like VIPs at a fisherman’s wharf.

Every member of Tampa’s vaunted, wily fourth line — Pierre-Edouard Bellmare, Pat Maroon, Corey Perry — scored a goal.

Tampa’s own zone was still glistening with fresh Zamboni smears by the 10-minute mark.

It was a romp. It was a message. It was an embarrassment.

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“We knew it was coming. We just obviously didn’t execute,” captain John Tavares said. “We shot ourselves in the foot with too many penalties.”

Putting Tampa on the power play eight times in the blowout, Toronto now leads the playoffs in penalties taken (32) and penalty minutes (112). It also has the worst penalty differential (minus-4).

“You gotta be more disciplined. We got a little taste tonight of how it’s going to be going forward,” Muzzin added. “This is our fourth game taking way too many penalties.”

Erik Källgren traded the ballcap for the mask before the mess was half over, a preservation pull for starter Jack Campbell. The goalie could not be faulted by 18 skaters’ decision to no-show and told Keefe during a lengthy conversation at a TV timeout that he wished to battle to the bitter end.

“We need him to be good for the next game. So, it was more so mindset [I was checking on],” Keefe explained of the chat. “It’s a long way to come back.”

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As usual, the Maple said all the right things leading up to Game 4.

Keefe figured they might as well “get greedy” after securing a split Friday, noting the Leafs had yet to play their best game of the series.

“We’re playing against a great team,” William Nylander had said, “so we don’t want to relax.”

He’s right.

The Lightning are great. They’ve got the banners and the swagger to prove it.

Their killer instinct cannot be questioned.

Hungry, fast and on task, they forced the Maple Leafs into mistakes. But the visitors bent soft and purposeless in the face of execution.

“We have a recipe. We have a plan. We’ve been in these situations before,” coach Jon Cooper said prior to puck drop. Then he correctly issued a prediction: “We’ll bounce back.”

The legend of Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Lightning’s ridiculous winning streak following a playoff loss — now 16-0 — grew on Sunday, just as the Maple Leafs’ equally long hunt to assert themselves when ahead.

If there is any good news to pull out of these disastrous 60 minutes, it’s that momentum has never been carried from game to game in this ping-pong series.

The showdown has been reset.

It’s imperative the Maple Leafs do the same.

“We got a split. We came out here, it was a best-of-five series with three games in this building and two at home. Now it’s a best-of-three with two in our building. So, it’s a successful road trip in that sense,” Keefe said.

“You wash it. You move on. We’ll be better next time.”

With two series leads eradicated already, are the feelings of past disappointments creeping in?

Muzzin killed that question with one definitive word: “No.”

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Fox’s Fast 5

• John Tavares has yet to score in the series and has been blanked in his past five playoff games.

“I haven’t been able to produce offensively as I’d like,” Tavares said. “No doubt, I expect more and want to be better.”

• Zach Bogosian was asked if he’d let Anthony Cirelli babysit his kids. Absolutely. Cirelli even bought Christmas presents for the big D-man’s three young children.

“Just a super nice kid,” Bogosian said of the shutdown centre. “You see how feisty he is on the ice, and off the ice he’s just a polite, nice, good Italian kid.”

• For some reason, Perry dropped his routine of shooting a puck into the Maple Leafs’ net at the conclusion of warmups. Asked why he was doing so, Perry replied with a straight face: “No idea what you’re talking about.”

Pierre Engvall did flip a puck toward the Bolts’ net before leaving the ice, as he did before Game 3. (He missed.)

• The Maple Leafs played soccer in the bowels of the arena before the game. The Lightning tossed around a football. Hockey must be the only team sport where players loosen up by playing other team sports.

• The series is even, the games not so much. 

The first team to score first in each of the four games has not only won, but it has never trailed or even tied. The winning side has held a three-goal lead in all four.

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