“Now it’s our turn to push back.” — Auston Matthews, Thursday
TAMPA, Fla. – When your most dangerous players get nullified at even-strength by one of the most effective shutdown trios in hockey, it’s up to the role players to elevate and make an impact.
Such was the case in Game 3 of this seesaw series rocking back and forth between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning, where the only safe bet from game to game or period to period is that the players decked out in blue and white will dominate.
With special teams again impacting (but not deciding) the outcome, a couple of unsung forwards on the visiting side, Colin Blackwell and David Kämpf, provided cherished 5-on-5 goals, pushing the Leafs to a 5-2 victory on enemy ice.
On the strength of coach Sheldon Keefe’s balanced bottom six, they swiped home-ice
On the strength of coach Sheldon Keefe’s balanced bottom-six — 83 per cent of whom were acquired via trade or free agency by GM Kyle Dubas — the Leafs dug in to swipe home-ice advantage back Friday as swiftly as they fumbled it away Wednesday.
“It just so happens at this time of year, you need some guys to step out of character a bit. Tonight, that was the case,” Keefe said. “You need guys to make plays, step up.”
Who had a puck-eating, body-crunching Ilya Lyubushkin feathering a patient, perfect setup to fourth-liner Blackwell on their bingo card?
Or checking centre Kämpf, he of one goal total in 2020-21, plopping a cherry on top of his sublime shutdown effort with his second — yes, second — goal of this young series?
A game-winner, no less.
Or speedster Ilya Mikheyev sealing the deal with not one but two empty-net goals, the only two post-season strikes of his rapidly spiking career?
Fun fact: Kämpf has scored 13 times as Leaf, and Toronto has won every game.
“Really?” Kämpf responds when informed of the stat. “I didn’t know that. Hopefully we keep it going.”
“He doesn’t score unimportant goals,” Keefe explains. “It just speaks to his character. He’s level-headed and even-keel. He doesn’t have any huge swings in emotion or energy, so in those moments he can make a play. Doesn’t panic.
“We certainly knew he had way more ability than a one-goal scorer.”
Dumb penalties continue to be a series subplot, as two puck-over-glass penalties committed by the normally poised champions (one by Pat Maroon, the other by Ryan McDonagh) helped put that vicious Leafs power play on the ice early and often.
“You can’t take five penalties in the first half of the game,” Steven Stamkos said. “It’s taxing.”
Added Lighting coach Jon Cooper: “The parade to the penalty box is getting exhausting… We self-imploded.”
Morgan Rielly whacked home a rebound to open the scoring with Maroon stuffed in the penalty box.
Next it was Lyubushkin hopping out of the box and into the rush, after serving a silly post-whistle banishment of his own. The defenceman channeled his inner Michell Marner on a smart drive and putting a puck on a platter for Blackwell, who notched his first NHL playoff goal.
“Caught us a little bit by surprise,” Matthews admitted.
Kämpf’s clean shot, unassisted, gave the Leafs a short-lived 3-0 cushion that would later stand as the game-winner for the unsung hero.
“He does it all for us. He’s so smart,” Jack Campbell said. “He’s a great person to be around. We absolutely love having him, and he’s a huge part of our team. I just think he works so hard on all areas of his game.
“It’s kinda like life: When you do things the right way, you usually get rewarded.”
While the Lightning’s stars did a fine job reigning in those of the Leafs, Tampa needed a power-play, and a costly Toronto mistake, to spark a rally.
When penalty-killer Alexander Kerfoot inexplicably held onto the puck in the neutral zone instead of dumping it deep, he was run over and robbed of his possession by Ondrej Palat. The home team stormed into the Toronto zone with numbers.
A quick passing sequence culminated with Ross Colton ripping a one-timer past Jack Campbell from a sharp angle, helping turn an ornery Lightning crowd.
In the third period, Andrei Vasilevskiy stoned Matthews not once but twice on a breakaway before Palat wired a bouncing puck high through Campbell, narrowing the gap to one.
Alas, that’s where the comeback ended.
The Maple Leafs dug in, clogged lanes, blocked shots and battled for zone clears.
“We knew they were going to push, but we didn’t break,” Keefe said. “These are the games we need to win.”
The highlight of Toronto’s nail-biting cling to a late one-goal lead came on the penalty kill, when Nikita Kucherov threaded a crisp cross-seam pass to Stamkos, all wound up for his patented one-timer.
“I felt like I got everything, and some,” Stamkos said. “Great save.”
“A game-saving save… There was a bit of a sense on the bench that it’s going in,” Keefe added. “Stamkos doesn’t miss those very much when it comes through [the seam] like that.”
Mikheyev, dogged all night, allowed the Leafs to exhale with his hard-earned empty-netters.
Toronto’s speed, depth and a stellar showing by Campbell shifted all the pressure on the men with rings on their fingers.
“Fifteen penalties in eight periods of hockey,” Cooper lamented. “It’s not a winning formula.”
Game 4 goes Sunday.
Fox’s Fast 5
• John Tavares has one goal in his past 12 games. At even strength, he has three assists in that span. It’s time.
“I think 200-foot game is the big focus for me,” Tavares says, “knowing the team you’re up against and the game-breakers that they have. I want to continue to find ways to generate more and breakthrough but, overall, 5-on-5 has been tight.”
• During the Lightning’s Stanley Cup runs in 2020 and 2021, Cooper says the club made it mandatory for the players to stay off social media and encouraged them to leave the TV dim.
“Yes, you can get your tires pumped, but you can get them deflated as well,” Cooper says.
So, how does a guy survive without his screens?
“You gotta make sure you have a deck of cards with you at all times.”
• Jason Spezza on the emergence of a confident Pierre Engvall:
“He’s more aware of how strong he is, how strong he can be on pucks. He’s learned to use his speed. And he’s learned to change speeds, which has really helped a lot. I think early on he was one speed — very fast everywhere. And now he’s learned to get teams off-kilter by changing speeds…. He’s been a phenomenal player for us all year.”
• Do you believe in numerology? The sweater number worn by beloved Tampa anthem singer Sonya Bryson-Kirksey: 67.
• Shared an elevator with Vincent Lecavalier. And, yes, he absolutely looks like he could lace ’em up for Game 4.