TORONTO – As part of his homework for the most important playoff matchup of his career, Sheldon Keefe rewatched the Tampa Bay Lightning’s eight-series win streak. The head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs studied the ugly work that went into those glorious boat parades.
Particularly the tone the champs set in 2021’s wild, nasty, and binge-worthy first round versus the Florida Panthers.
In Keefe’s estimation, the Playoff Lightning led the league post-whistle skirmishes and extracurricular nastiness. He’s preparing his Maple Leafs accordingly, starting Monday.
“I expect it to be a very physical, borderline violent series in a lot of ways. And our guys will be ready for that,” said Keefe, following Sunday’s peppy 60-minute practice.
And the coach trusts his Maple Leafs, known more for their wrist shots than their fist-pops, are up for the task.
“We’ve done it. We’ve done it through the season. We expect it. We got a taste of it when we were down in Tampa,” Keefe said, referring to April’s 114-penalty-minute blowout.
“I’ve watched them play through their playoff runs, and I’ve rewatched it since. And they’re going to be very physical. They’re going to be very competitive.”
Therefore, Keefe will dress his grittiest available lineup Monday, when a tone will be set.
Here are Toronto’s projected playoff starters:
Scratches: Sandin, Holl, Spezza, Bunting
Heavy hitters Ilya Lyubushkin, Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford are all expected to skate, while Jason Spezza and Justin Holl remain eager reserves.
Ondrej Kase (concussion) is officially a game-time decision, but his speed and aggression should be a boon on the wing of John Tavares’s second line. Kase also took reps on the second power-play unit.
“It’s just great to see him out there,” Game 1 starter Jack Campbell said. “I know the feeling of being away from the team. And coming back, you get that boost.
“You could tell he was fired up, and he looked great out there.”
Rugged veterans Simmonds and Clifford both dropped gloves last time Toronto faced the Lightning. And while they have each spent stretches as healthy scratches this season, the respected leaders’ toughness and experience is being called on early.
“Those guys were a big part of our identity in that way,” Keefe explained.
“We need to have our guys that are gonna be physical and competitive just the same. The officials will have to decide how they want to call the game, but our expectation is, again, based on history, that it’s going to be very physical. A lot of stuff’s gonna be let go. We have to find our way through that and initiate it ourselves.”
Captain John Tavares agrees.
“[Clifford and Simmonds] are huge parts of our team,” Tavares said. “They may not be on the scoresheet every night, but the elements they bring are very important — and certainly at this time of year.”
Injured top-line left wing Michael Bunting (undisclosed) only participated for about 25 minutes before leaving the ice Sunday. He is doubtful for Game 1 but is expected to appear later in the series.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have been happy to welcome utility man Alexander Kerfoot on their line in the meantime.
“Bunts is obviously a bit more fiery, but Footer sees the ice extremely well. He moves the puck. His IQ really jumps out,” Matthews said.
“There’s a little adjustment with each guy you play with, but we’ve played enough with each other that the chemistry is there.”
One-Timers: Rasmus Sandin is close to returning from his knee injury but has not seen enough practice action to be a lineup option at this point…. Late NCAA signing Nick Abruzzese hit the ice but was not a participant in team practice. He’s expected to be part of the Leafs’ black aces, along with some of the Marlies, who were eliminated from AHL playoff contention Saturday…. The Lightning recalled veteran centre (and brief Leaf) Riley Nash…. The Lightning are healthy, including Brayden Point, who sat out Friday, per coach Jon Cooper.