TAMPA, Fla. — Sheldon Keefe said Sunday morning his team had yet to produce its best hockey this spring.
Toronto’s head coach is still waiting.
Steven Stamkos scored one minute into the first period to spark an early barrage as the Tampa Bay Lightning steamrolled the Maple Leafs 7-3 to knot their first-round playoff series 2-2.
“We weren’t at the required level,” Keefe said following an embarrassing no-show. “Tampa played at a higher level than us and got rewarded for it.”
Ross Colton, with a pair, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Pat Maroon, Corey Perry and Ondrej Palat had the other goals for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Nikita Kucherov and Brandon Hagel added two assists each for the Lightning, who led 3-0 inside the first eight minutes inside a raucous Amalie Arena.
“We had a great start,” Stamkos said. “That was one of our keys, to come out and play the right way.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 22 shots, improving to an eye-popping 16-0 in the last three post-seasons following a loss.
Tampa carried its dominant performance to close out Friday’s 5-2 defeat — Toronto scored two late empty-netters — into Game 4.
“We talked about finding some success there in the third period and wanting to replicate that,” Stamkos added. “Guys took it to heart.”
William Nylander scored twice for Toronto, while Jake Muzzin also beat Vasilevskiy with the game out of reach.
Jack Campbell allowed five goals on 16 shots before being pulled in favour of Erik Kallgren for the Leafs, who came out flat on a night they could have grabbed a 3-1 stranglehold in the best-of-seven matchup. Kallgren finished with 10 saves.
“It’s disappointing,” Muzzin said. “We battled hard the other night to be in the position we were in. We knew they were gonna come hard.
“Just weren’t ready for it.”
Toronto has taken an NHL-high 32 penalties through four contests, with the Lightning having connected on the power play five times, including once on Sunday.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of, for the most part, not getting involved in the stuff not in between the whistles,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “But some of the obstruction is getting called tighter than probably we’ve been used to in the past.
“Something we have to adapt to.”
The series now shifts to Scotiabank Arena for Tuesday’s Game 5, while Game 6 goes Thursday back at Amalie Arena. Game 7, if necessary, is scheduled for Saturday in Toronto.
“Scored on their first shot and took it to us, but it’s one game,” said Campbell, who’s allowed 12 goals in his last 145 minutes 25 seconds of action against the Lightning.
“Learn from it, be ready for the next one.”
Looking to get more out of a top line that was largely neutralized in Game 3 by Anthony Cirelli, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn with Tampa getting the last change, Keefe moved Alexander Kerfoot into Michael Bunting’s spot on the wing alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to begin the game.
But Toronto, which finished the regular season with 115 points, five clear of the Lightning for second in the Atlantic Division, started its third line and third defence pair, and was on the back foot from the drop of the puck as Tampa’s top units came in waves against a skittish opponent.
The Leafs hadn’t even crossed centre when Stamkos — robbed by Campbell on a late one-timer in Game 3 — blasted another of his patented bullets a minute into the first to blow the roof off the sold-out rink after Toronto defenceman Justin Holl couldn’t clear the zone.
“They came out hard and we didn’t execute,” Tavares said. “We have to do a better job of being on our toes and being ready for that.
“We knew it was coming.”
The listless visitors went down 2-0 at 5:20 when Muzzin and Campbell couldn’t control a puck down low that popped out to Bellemare in the slot.
Tampa made it 3-0 as the onslaught continued with a second fourth-line goal when Maroon jumped on another miscue by a Toronto defender — Morgan Rielly was the culprit this time — and poked home his own rebound at 7:58 after Campbell made a terrific pad stop.
Vasilevskiy didn’t have much to do at the other end with the shots sitting at 8-1, but was put to work late in the period as Toronto started to finally show a little life.
Matthews fired a wicked backhand off the crossbar before last season’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP had to be sharp on a deflection down low.
But the Lightning put any thought of a comeback to bed at 3:17 of the middle period when Colton’s snapshot went off Campbell’s glove for the centre’s second goal in as many games.
Tampa followed that up with a Perry goal that made it 5-0 — the third from a Lightning fourth-liner — on a long 5-on-3 man advantage at 5:25 after Tavares was whistled for hooking and David Kampf fired the puck out of play nine seconds later for a delay-of-game call.
Campbell stayed in the game for a couple more minutes only to be pulled in favour of Kallgren following a TV timeout after a long chat with Keefe at the bench.
“I always want to battle,” said the goaltender. “But I always respect the coach’s decision.”
“I know he’s going to continue to battle,” Keefe added. “I just made it clear to him it’s obviously a long way to come back and we need him to be good to go for the next game.”
Nylander got Toronto on the board with a goal on the man advantage at 2:27 of the third to spoil Vasilevskiy’s bid for the seventh playoff shutout of his career before adding his second of the playoffs with the teams skating 4 on 4 at 12:05.
The Leafs pulled Kallgren with under six minutes left in regulation, but Palat scored in into an empty net before Muzzin found the back of the net at 15:41 to make it 6-3.
But Colton added his second into another empty net to seal it.
Toronto hasn’t won a playoff round since 2004 — before the NHL instituted a salary cap and two lockouts ago — and is looking to take a step towards ending a Cup drought dating back 54 years following a string of post-season failures.
Toronto fans gathered around the team’s tunnel leading to the ice surface and started “Go Leafs Go” chants half an hour before warmups.
Tampa’s game operations crew, meanwhile, trolled the visitors by showing a “1967” sign on the rink’s massive scoreboard ahead of the opening faceoff before the Lightning imposed their will early and often.
“We got the split,” Keefe said in trying to take a positive out of Sunday’s disaster. “It was a best-of-five with three games in this building and two at home. Now it’s best-of-three with two in our building. It’s a successful road trip in that sense. Whether you lose the game 2-1 or in the manner that we did tonight, it doesn’t matter.
“You wash it, you move on. We’ll be better next time.”
If not, the Leafs will face another hostile environment Thursday — only this time with their collective backs against the wall.