Stanley Cup Playoffs What To Watch For: Can Leafs stifle Lightning again?

Watch as Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews cranks home a one-time shot past Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on a two-man advantage to double the Leafs lead over the Lightning.

With two nights of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the books, we move on to Game 2 for Boston-Carolina, Toronto-Tampa Bay, Edmonton-Los Angeles and Minnesota-St. Louis.

Here’s a look at some things to keep an eye out for tonight.

And May the fourth be with you.

Will the penalty standards from Game 1 continue?

The first two nights of the Stanley Cup Playoffs brought more power plays than were averaged in the regular season.

On the first night especially the number of calls being made was discussed and noticed all over. Was this the beginning of a standard that we’re not quite used to, or a one off?

“You look around the league there’s penalties everywhere,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “Obviously there was a, I don’t know if it was a mandate, but obviously they were making sure everything was tight right away. Everybody’s ramped up and running around so they were trying to take care of it.”

Minnesota-St. Louis was the most penalized game on the first night, with Toronto-Tampa Bay close behind. Lightning coach Jon Cooper maybe put a little blame on that with Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, who commented “I expect it to be a very physical, borderline violent series in a lot of ways,” before the puck had even been dropped.

Cooper suggested those comments brought “heightened awareness” from officials in Game 1.

A lot of calls were fair and square. Some you might have seen in the regular season and not batted an eye. But others seemed out of place in post-season hockey, where the reputation is for the whistles to go away, physicality to reign, and that the players decide the outcome.

Unfairly take possession or remove a scoring chance? That’s a penalty. Being physical? Not usually.

Jordan Greenway took this penalty while the Blues had possession going the other way. Playoff penalty? Call me old-fashioned, but I think not.

In Toronto, Mikhail Sergachev picked up a cross-checking penalty on this play, which seemed to be the sort of physical battle we’re used to around this time on the calendar. David Kampf’s drive had stopped and with it the scoring chance.

One night makes a small sample size, but it was a curious tone to set out of the gate.

On the first night of the playoffs there was an average of 9.25 power plays per game, which was way up over the regular-season average of 5.7 per game. Could it be just a whistle-happy start? Perhaps, though through the first seven games of the 2021 playoffs, there was an average of just 5.4 power plays per game.

The second night of the Stanley Cup Playoffs had a total of 29 power plays for an average of 7.25 per game. Something may be afoot.

So what will the first batch of Game 2s look like — an extension of what we saw on the first night, or a slow walk back to a more traditional standard?

Can the Maple Leafs shut down the Lightning again?

How impressive was the Maple Leafs forecheck and PK in Game 1? A five-minute power play for Tampa Bay that could have been a game-tilting moment in their favour instead swung wildly Toronto’s way when they killed it off and out-chanced the Lightning. The ‘Power Kill’ was on display.

It was just shocking how the Leafs dominated the Lightning so soon after getting hammered 8-1 at the end of the regular season. Was it the influence of the first home sell out playoff crowd in two years? Are we witnessing the final maturation of a Toronto roster that’s lost five series in a row? Will the Lightning remind us who they are in Game 2 and make all these questions look silly? Quite possibly.

But the Leafs made the Lightning look slow in Game 1, as they had done in a few other regular season meetings.

Tampa Bay’s power play went 0-for-5 in Game 1, and all of their top guns were out-chanced at 5-on-5, too. Andrei Vasilevskiy, while not to blame for the loss, seemed very…human. He didn’t flash, he didn’t steal goals away — he continued a bit of a struggle that has followed him through the month of April.

Now, giving this series to the Maple Leafs already is fool-hardy for all sorts of obvious reasons. Not least of those are that the Lightning are the back-to-back champs and that’s about as soft or undisciplined an effort as you’ll see from them all series.

“I’m not so sure the Maple Leafs had to play particularly well to beat us tonight,” Cooper said. “You gotta win four, but you don’t want to give teams any freebies and we probably gave them a freebie tonight. I think it’s hard to judge either team tonight.”

Game 2 could bring a much different vibe.

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Will Brad Marchand make some noise after quiet Game 1?

Following a 5-1 loss in Game 1, the Bruins are looking for their own pushback, their own spark, before this one gets away from them — and when the Bruins need a little vinegar you can look for Brad Marchand to stick his nose in there.

The motormouth and dangerous scorer was kept off the score sheet in the opener, tossed up a minus-3 and generated just two shots. His line still, for the most part, had play on their side, but not to a dominating level they’re used to.

How long will it be before Marchand offers a a controversial play that puts his stamp on the series? How long until he goes full heel, scores a road ice goal and pulls the crowd into it? How long until he toes the line, as he does so famously well? And then how long until we discuss if he stepped over it or not?

It’s unlikely that we’ll go through another game without Marchand announcing his presence in a big way — not with the Bruins losing so decisively in Game 1 and needing some emotion.

Can the Oilers beat Phillip Danault and his line?

Anze Kopitar has been one of the game’s top two-way pivots for some time and a tough defensive matchup for the best players in the world. Adding Phillip Danault to the mix gave the Kings a 1-2 punch down the middle that, they hoped, would translate to playoff success.

So far, so good.

Aside from Carey Price, Danault was one of Montreal’s most important players in their unlikely run to the Cup Final last year. He was a shutdown master, even though he wasn’t on the ice for much offence. Through the entire run, Danault was on the ice for just six 5-on-5 goals against. He smothered the Maple Leafs stars. He shut out the Jets. Against the high-powered Lightning in the Final, Danault was on the ice for a single goal against at 5-on-5.

This year, in Game 1 versus Edmonton, Danault’s line with Alex Iafallo and Trevor Moore was the best on the ice. They outshot their opponents 13-6 at 5-on-5 and outscored them 3-0. Leon Draisaitl’s line, for contrast, was outshot 6-1 at 5-on-5 and kept off the board.

That offence is something that could be a little different for Danault this year. While his defence was stellar in Montreal’s 2021 run, he didn’t generate offence and was actually still outscored on the ice. He had five goals in 53 games for the Canadiens all season. In Los Angeles, he scored 27 times in 79 games to far and away set a new career-best. And he scored the winner against Edmonton Monday night on a deflection right in front of the net.

Can the Oilers fight back and overcome Danault’s frustrating excellence? Or will the same story about his shutdown defence start to be written again in 2022, and plague the Oilers throughout?

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Will the Wild overcome, or get bogged down in frustration?

Special teams is not where the Wild will win this series and, unfortunately for them, it’s where a lot of Game 1 was spent. Both teams got six power plays, but where St. Louis’ second-ranked PP went 33 per cent, Minnesota’s 18th-ranked PP was shut out against a Blues kill that was also top five in the regular season.

While a couple calls may have been questionable, others were mistakes on the part of the players. The one that sticks out is Jared Spurgeon, who was lucky to escape suspension for his out-of-character cheap shot in the third period.

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“When Jared Spurgeon does something like that, that means your group is off-kilter a little bit,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “So they’ll rein it back in and he’ll be the guy to do it.”

At 5-on-5, the Wild actually carried most of the play, outshooting St. Louis 23-15 and outchancing them in the high danger area 12-4. But the score advantage read 2-0 St. Louis in that spot.

It will be key for the Wild, a team that beefed up at the deadline with Nic Deslauriers and Jacob Middleton, to toe the edge of the line but not cross it. More even strength play will be needed in Game 2, which will have as much to do with the standard the game will be called at, as it does Minnesota’s ability to maintain composure.

“It’s way easier to hold your composure when you have the lead,” Evason said. “When you don’t have the lead it’s more difficult. You’re frustrated and you let your emotions get the best of you. And you retaliate as opposed to initiate.

“We will learn from our mistakes.”

The other thing to watch for is who starts for Minnesota? Evason said he’d change up some of the looks on his power play unit and when asked if he would make any other lineup changes he said…”yep,” without getting into detail what those moves might be.

The goalie situation is fluid in Minnesota. Cam Talbot was the better performer post-deadline and never lost a regulation game after Marc-Andre Fleury came to town. Fleury had no offensive help in Game 1 and isn’t to blame for the loss. He’ll get the nod in Game 2 as well. But beyond that? Stay tuned.

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