“It’s going to be a long, long series.” — Steven Stamkos
TORONTO – The counterpunch.
It had been winding up since Monday’s 5-0 shellacking, and you could sense it revving with every measured soundbite, malicious bodycheck, and opportunistic special-teams sequence executed by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
On 14 occasions during their two-year reign atop the hardest league in hockey, they have lost a playoff game. And on 14 occasions, buoyed by the sport’s most clutch goaltender, they bounced back stronger and fiercer and earned a win.
Why wouldn’t the 15th be more of the same?
Sure, the champs took one on the chin in Game 1. But by waking up and executing a determined and disciplined 5-3 victory on rowdy Toronto ice Wednesday, they evened the series 1-1 and snatched home ice from the Maple Leafs.
“Good group at turning the page,” Lightning Jon Cooper said. “They dig their heels in when they’re pushed up against the wall. We have a pretty good history of taking Game 2.”
The Leafs tilted the ice something drastic in the opening frame, appearing to ride Monday’s momentum all the way through the off-day. What they failed to do, however, was solve a dialled-in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“We take it personal,” Hedman said of Tampa’s one-and-done losing skids. “We’ve got a lot of trust in our team.”
“You have to make it personal,” Cooper agreed. “Create an anger inside and a want — whether your want is to win or your want is not to lose, either one. And that was the mindset we had going in tonight.”
In Period 2, Hedman sprung pesky Corey Perry for a breakaway with a beautiful cross-ice stretch pass. And the Ontario-born veteran made no mistake, darting the puck through Campbell’s legs:
The crowd roared back to life when Auston Matthews nailed Ryan McDonagh on a forecheck and made a sprawling poke pass to Mitch Marner. Marner then teed up Michael Bunting, whose first NHL playoff goal brought the city to its feet.
The notion that Matthews and Marner cannot be difference-makers is getting tossed out early this series.
“Hopefully these first two games kind of put that to bed,” Wayne Simmonds said. “I think it’s up to the rest of us to be able to match their intensity.”
Yet the Leafs’ inability to rein in the minor penalties — and Tampa’s much-improved execution on the man-advantage — caused havoc for the home team.
Silenced in Game 1, Nikita Kucherov lasered a power-play goal with Simmonds in the box for roughing.
Trade-deadline additions Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel linked up for some third-period insurance.
And Brayden Point tacked on a third power-play goal, tossing all those fantastic Leafs penalty-kill narratives in the shredder.
Marner and Alexander Kerfoot scored late, but the damage had long been done.
“The mentality was obviously not to give up, keep going,” Simmonds said. “We wanted to build momentum for next game. I thought we did that.”
Tampa was smarter and more disciplined.
Seven power-plays stapled Toronto’s stars to the pine and allowed the Lightning’s to shine bright, from the net out.
“We have all the skill in the world,” Hedman said. “We’ve got the best goaltender in the world.”
Indeed, the Maple Leafs were rudely introduced to the real Vasilevskiy and the true form of the Lightning’s electrifying power play in Game 2.
Another chippy, whistle-heavy, lopsided affair in which special teams played a massive role.
Through 120 minutes of hockey, the sides have combined for 135 minutes of penalties, 22 power plays, and six goals off special teams.
“It’s really obvious what the difference is in the game here today,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Their power play was better.”
Simmonds wasn’t the only one to blame for the Leafs’ lack of discipline, but his overexuberance could cost him a lineup spot in Game 3.
“We took too many penalties. I think I was a culprit. Took two, they scored two, we lost by two,” Simmonds fessed up. “You gotta be smart.”
Toronto’s counter must be executed wisely. Reckless doesn’t wear well on this group.
“It’s about keeping yourself together, because there’s ebbs and flows,” Cooper explained. “The series, it never goes your way the whole time. When adversity hits, how are you going to handle it?
“Just because you’ve gone through it, it doesn’t mean, ‘Hey, we’ve done this before.’ It’s still hard work. And that’s what our group has been good at. They understand the work they have to put in.”
Now it’s the Maple Leafs’ turn to take it personal, to revisit the drawing board and sharpen their pencils.
Game 3 goes Friday in Tampa.
“We’ll go out on the road,” Keefe said, “and get a win.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Hedman registered a mellow four-point night. That’s his seventh playoff game with three points minimum. He is a defenceman.
“He leads by example,” Perry said. “When we’ve needed somebody to step up, it’s been our big boys.”
• Andrei Vasilevskiy, ladies and gentlemen, who improves to 15-0 after a playoff loss:
• Betcha the league minimum Jason Spezza plays Game 3.
• Great stuff from Nazem Kadri in his Players’ Tribune piece on not wanting to get traded away and still thinking about his illegal hit on Jake DeBrusk — his final act as a Maple Leaf:
Getting the call from Kyle Dubas, it was tough. Spent my whole hockey life in Ontario, really, and to have it end like that… I was sad, I won’t lie. I was a player on the team, yeah, but I was a fan, too. Always will be.
• Steve Thomas — the former Leaf who also served as an assistant coach in Tampa under Cooper — showed where his allegiances lie.
Riling up the Toronto faithful pregame, Thomas made a promise: