Why Maple Leafs are making multiple lineup changes for Game 3

maple-leafs-jason-spezza-skates-against-sabres

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza (19) skates during the first period against the Buffalo Sabres, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

TAMPA – Hours after Wednesday’s optional Game 2 morning skate, when the rest of the Toronto Maple Leafs players were tucking into lunch and settling into their pre-game naps, Jason Spezza and head coach Sheldon Keefe were still inside Scotiabank Arena.

The two lifelong hockey men, nearly peers in age, were posted up at rink level where chefs would soon be carving prime rib for the platinum seat-holders. They were engaged in a quiet one-on-one conversation, presumably one of those “not easy” chats the coach says he has when healthy-scratching respected veterans.

“I don’t think words can describe how hard it is to watch a game when you’re a player,” Spezza said Friday morning, finally being called to enter his 13th post-season.

“It’s the best time of year to play hockey.”

Keefe said he’d be wanting to get Spezza, his hungry PP2 quarterback and seasoned faceoff winner, involved against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was simply a matter of timing.

The way the coach forecasted the series, he (correctly) predicted Game 1 and 2 to be highly physical, hence the insertion of rugged wingers Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford early.

But with both Clifford (Game 1) and Simmonds (Game 2) taking reckless penalties and Keefe wanting to offensively balance his forwards against matchups he can’t control, intimidation takes a seat.

Spezza draws in for Game 3.

More compelling is third-liner Pierre Engvall dropping down to the fourth with Colin Blackwell and Spezza, which gives Toronto protection against mismatches and more scoring punch in the bottom six.

Another wrinkle: William Nylander will get his long-awaited reunion with John Tavares on the second line in hopes that duo (zero even-strength points) can break through offensively.

Yet with Lightning coach Jon Cooper holding last change, it’s likely Nylander-Tavares-Kase running up against Tampa’s explosive top line of Ondrej Palat–Steven Stamkos–Nikita Kucherov. Keefe stresses defence must be priority No. 1.

“They made some adjustments; we have to make adjustments. That’s kinda the nature of playoffs. Two great hockey teams—that’s what stands out to me,” Spezza says.

“When you have depth that we have, it’s good this time of year to make adjustments.”

On the back end, a healthy Timothy Liljegren will take a seat in favour of Justin Holl, who sat out both games in Toronto.

The more experienced and defensively minded right shot will partner with Mark Giordano in anticipation of some unsheltered competition.

That so many penalties have been called in the series — the Leafs’ penalty kill gave up three goals on seven Tampa power-plays in Wednesday’s loss — also prompted Keefe to call on Holl’s PK expertise.

“There’s been times where Lily’s inexperience has showed up a little bit,” Keefe said. “It’s been a lot for him to take on here.”

Shuffling off through Buffalo

Taking their cues from the COVID-test-dodging travel itineraries of NBA and MLB teams, the Maple Leafs discussed last week the idea of bussing to Buffalo Thursday afternoon before catching a plane to Florida.

“A little bit of a wrinkle. A little bit of a longer day,” Tavares said. “Just doing everything we can to give us our best chance for success.”

The Lightning flew directly from Toronto, but the Leafs did not want to risk the chance of a positive test harming their lineup in the U.S.

Spezza sees no harm in the extra step.

“It’s above my pay grade,” he chuckled.

“I get on the bus when they tell me to get on the bus. I get on the plane when they tell me to get on the plane. As long as it all leads to the arena, I’m pretty happy.”

One-Timers: Black ace Joey Anderson filled in for Ondrej Kase during the Maple Leafs’ morning skate. Kase was absent due to an undisclosed personal matter we’re told is a “good news” story. “He’s fine. He’ll be here tonight and ready to go,” Keefe assures…. Tampa Bay will roll with the same lineup that won Game 2…. The Lightning continue to prioritize rest. They have not practised or held a team morning skate since Tuesday…. Jon Cooper on the surprisingly high number of whistles in the series: “I think it’s on the players to curb their enthusiasm.”

Maple Leafs projected Game 3 lines

Bunting-Matthews-Marner
Nylander-Tavares-Kase
Mikheyev-Kämpf-Kerfoot
Engvall-Blackwell-Spezza

Rielly-Lyubushkin
Muzzin-Brodie
Giordano-Holl

Campbell starts
Källgren

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.