Why offence for Maple Leafs’ Matthews, Marner will be harder to find in Tampa

The play of Auston Matthews and teammate Mitch Marner will go a long way in how the Leafs do in their playoff series with Tampa Bay. (CP/file)

TAMPA – As the marquee Toronto Maple LeafsTampa Bay Lightning playoff series changes to a best-of-five and moves south of the border, another shift is also taking place.

This shift is more subtle and, we’re predicting, more important to all those mini-battles that add up to one team trumping the other.

The Lightning’s Jon Cooper will have final change in games 3 and 4 at Amalie Arena Friday and Sunday, meaning the most successful active coach of this era will undoubtedly deploy his best shutdown unit against the Toronto Maple Leafs all-world offensive line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting.

That Matthews (two goals, three assists) and Marner (ditto) have already matched or eclipsed their production through two (home) playoff games against Andrei Vasilevskiy as they did through seven matches against Carey Price last May is a rich source of confidence within Maple Leafs walls.

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But it is also indicative of the matchup game within the game.

Holding final line change in Games 1 and 2, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe elected to align offensive strength against offensive strength. As a result, Bunting–Matthews–Marner was able to edge Ondrej PalatSteven StamkosNikita Kucherov.

Locals quick to criticize the lack of production from Toronto’s second line of Ilya Mikheyev–John Tavares–Alexander Kerfoot should recognize they had to deal with plenty of Tampa’s preeminent shutdown line of Alex Killorn–Anthony Cirelli–Brayden Point.

(True, Tavares has been held to just one assist this series. He has also not allowed a goal and held a 5-on-5 edge in scoring chances, 10-8, despite facing tough competition.)

All of that will flip once Cooper lands in the dealer position at Amalie Arena.

“It gives them a little bit of an edge,” Keefe conceded Thursday. “The biggest thing, really, is just how they’ll manage their defence. From a forward perspective, I think it’s going to be more determined by face-off locations and things like that.

“I would imagine you’re gonna see Point, Cirelli and Killorn trying to get a lot of time against Matthews and all of that.”

Whereas Stamkos and Kucherov feel the obligation to generate offence, and have been prone to give up more chances the other way, Cirelli’s unit is dialled in on D.

Cirelli — who has justly popped up on Selke ballots four years running — should give Matthews and Marner fits the way Phillip Danault did in that disheartening Montreal series.

“Good, smart player. He’s got good instincts. Good stick,” Keefe said.

“He’s a guy that doesn’t take too many chances on offence, so he’s in good positions defensively. He’s a good, reliable player for them.”

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Matthews, a brilliant two-way centre in his own right, understands what’s on deck.

“Yeah, he’s good. He just plays really well on both sides of the puck. Plays fast. Very versatile. He kinda does everything for them as well – penalty kill, power play,” Matthews said.

“He flies a bit under the radar, but he’s obviously a big driver for them.”

The underlying numbers suggest the Toronto-born Cirelli (a good buddy of Marner’s) is the biggest driver up front for Tampa.

No regular Lightning forward has a better Corsi-for or scoring-chances-for percentage at 5-on-5 (53-plus) than Cirelli.

Despite Cirelli starting 55 per cent of his shifts in the defensive zone, Tampa outscores the opposition 45-38 when he’s on the ice.

That’s a result of talent and smooth skating meshing with a beaverlike work ethic.

“He’s great at winning 50/50 battles – something I don’t think gets talked about enough,” Killorn said.

The good news for Toronto?

If Cirelli is stapled to Matthews, Tavares should be able to carve more space to generate for himself and his wingers.

Those critical if not-so-obvious tests within the game are about to get rejuggled.

Which team’s top six can take advantage of this fresh wrinkle could influence who holds the hammer when the series shifts back to Toronto next week.

One-Timers: Keefe refused to tip his hand Thursday as to potential Game 3 lineup changes. The suspicion is Kyle Clifford or Jason Spezza will replace Wayne Simmonds on the fourth line. … The other series that has most caught Matthews’ eye? Pittsburgh–New York. “Those two teams are pretty fun to watch,” Matthews said. … Cooper on the abnormally high 22 power plays doled out through two games: “Just speaking for our series, most of these penalties are deserved. Both teams need to recognize that.”… The Maple Leafs took a bus to Buffalo Thursday to fly to Tampa Bay from there, thus avoiding the risk of a positive rapid test.

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