Maple Leafs get lesson in champion savvy as Lightning level series in Game 2

Victor Hedman led the way had a goal and three assists and Nikita Kucherov added a goal and two assists as the Tampa Bay Lightning rebounded to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-3 to even up their first-round playoff series 1-1.

TORONTO — For anyone wondering what it means to be a championship-calibre team, what it is to march into city after city having never lost back-to-back games on the way to winning back-to-back Cups, this is what it looks like.

After the Toronto Maple Leafs served up a thumping in Game 1 of their first-round series against the defending champions, everyone on both sides of the ice expected an entirely different affair in the sequel, the Tampa Bay Lightning just too good, too seasoned, to not come back with an answer.

But Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena, the Bolts showed Toronto what exactly veteran savvy looks like, baiting the Maple Leafs into a game that played perfectly into their hands, coaxing the quick-footed series leaders away from the style of play that’s made them one of the best clubs in the league this season, and into one that hung two banners at Amalie Arena.

Early on, you’d have had a tough time seeing it coming.

Sheldon Keefe’s squad started Game 2 much the same way they finished Game 1, putting together the fourth straight period that saw them out-skate and out-chance the Lightning. They were rolling, the power play getting good looks, the penalty kill firing pucks down the ice, Jack Campbell holding down the fort in net.

From the opening puck-drop, it was clear both teams were intent on carrying over the “borderline violence” that highlighted the first meeting, bodies draped in both jerseys flying against boards and against each other, all across the sheet. The crowd swelling and roaring in approval as Colin Blackwell, Wayne Simmonds and half the Maple Leafs blue line got licks in during that early 20 minutes, while the blue-and-white high-flyers got their looks on net.

It was in the second period that it all went sideways.

The Maple Leafs headed into the middle frame down a goal, a lucky bounce breaking Tampa Bay’s way in the final seconds of the opening period. Right off the hop, Toronto looked focused on establishing that heightened physical presence, Ilya Mikheyev veering off course to pop Alex Killorn soon after the opening faceoff. A couple minutes later, it was Michael Bunting, swatting at Corey Perry en route to the bench as the veteran winger skated by him in the Lightning zone — only to see Perry then zip up to the Leafs’ blue line, collect a wicked heads-up pass from Victor Hedman, and beat Jack Campbell to lift the visitors’ lead to 2-0.

Still, down 2-0 with the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner sitting on Toronto’s bench, flanked by a bevy of dynamic playmakers, it was an inconvenience rather than an insurmountable climb.

The rough stuff continued — a body crashing into Simmonds, Lyubushkin throwing his own around, another Bolt taking on Kase. Auston Matthews channelled that energy into an avenue that could’ve led Toronto to a better night, No. 34 throwing all 205 of his pounds into Ryan McDonagh down by the Lightning net, separating the Tampa defender from the puck, and getting it over to linemates Mitch Marner and Bunting for a crucial goal.

The score 2-1, the tides potentially turning.

But what seemed a turn on the path, leading Toronto back towards the type of relentless attacking that had them coming out on top through four of the series’ first five periods, was instead a fork in the road. And the Leafs, it seems, chose wrong.

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Instead of leaning into that high-octane offence, they continued picking bodies off along the wall at every chance. Instead of trying to stir up the type of dizzying playmaking that had clubs spinning all year, they kept looking for opportunities to prove they could throw weight around with the best of them — a game after they’d proven all they needed to.

It started going off the rails midway through that second period, when Simmonds was marched to the box, having dumped Pierre-Edouard Bellemare beside Toronto’s net well after the whistle blew. Within 30 seconds, the puck was in the Maple Leafs’ net, courtesy of a bit of signature trickery from Nikita Kucherov — the first goal of the post-season for the Lightning’s most dangerous scorer, now awake.

And yet, moments after being burned by one, the Maple Leafs found themselves in another post-whistle scrum, this one featuring Bunting in the melee.

Five minutes into the next period, it was a familiar scene: the Maple Leafs a touch desperate after an early goal again, Simmonds marched to the box for a post-whistle fracas again, and a surgical power-play goal from the defending champs again — this one a tic-tac-toe tally from Hedman, Kucherov and Brayden Point.

Staring down a trip to Florida for Game 3 with the series knotted up at 1-1 following a night that saw the Lightning put away three power-play goals, Keefe had little trouble diagnosing this one.

“The refs set the standard early — they took one after the whistle, which made it pretty clear that they were going to call it like that after the whistle. We didn’t do a good job of reading that and responding to that,” he said. “We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be more responsible with that. But we will be.”

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On the other side of the ledger, the Lightning’s leaders assessed the key that unlocked a return to level ground in this first-round series, pointing to the precise element that wound up as Toronto’s biggest gap — that ability to play physical, but focused.

“They’re calling it tight,” Brayden Point said post-game. “I think it’s just playing hard, but playing between the whistles is a focus for us. I thought tonight we finished checks and played physical, but walked the line a little bit. We know how dangerous that team is on the power play, so staying out of the box is crucial.”

Added his coach, who made clear what the gameplan was going in:

“We’re aware of what we’re doing. We can only control ourselves — we can’t control the other team. And you’ve got to play the game between the whistles,” said Jon Cooper.

“It’s playoff hockey. Guys are going to step up and back their team. … It’s teams that want to win. It’s guys that are battling hard. But you’ve just got to be smart about it.”

The Maple Leafs weren’t, and they relinquished a series lead because of it.

Instead, they played right into their veteran opponents’ hands. A team built on speed, dynamic offence, and skilful creativity has been pulled into a competition to see who can crush the boards hardest.

And Toronto’s captain knows that path isn’t the one that offers a chance at redemption when the teams return to the ice for Game 3. It’s the one they’ve followed all season that will get them there.

“When we play fast, and we’ve been able to come together, get on the forecheck, get to the middle of the ice and make it difficult for their goalie to see the puck and be as confident as he can be… it obviously challenges them,” John Tavares said Wednesday night, taking stock of his team’s approach. 

“If we can generate the momentum, play on the terms that we want to play on, it allows us to be on the front foot. And just controlling emotion, I think. It’s such a fine line.”

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