TORONTO – They came in with a whimper and walked out with a whisper.
For four days of pre-playoffs hype and hoopla, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe spoke about how his group needed to play on its toes, to dictate pace and impose its game — a game that had been rounding into form nicely this month — on the Tampa Bay Lightning, as wise and wily an opponent as one will find this time of year.
Instead, these rested and healthy Maple Leafs started their most urgent post-season to date so far back on their heels that they looked ready for a trust fall.
Uninspired and out of sorts. Disorganized and undisciplined.
The only thing that would’ve made the Leafs’ performance uglier would be electing to wear their black alternate sweaters for a playoff game.
Fourth-line nemesis Corey Perry buzzed around the net and helped set up linemate Pierre-Edouard Bellmare for first blood 78 seconds in on Tuesday. Shutdown centre Anthony Cirelli doubled the lead six minutes later, and sniper Nikita Kucherov blasted a that’s-so-Lightning power-play one-timer with less than four ticks remaining in a disastrous first period.
The home fans were booing before the first pep talk, and between the time the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champions had chased a nervous-looking Ilya Samonsov from the starter’s net and converted the extra point on a 7-3 touchdown dance, large swaths of ticket-buying supporters had ducked out early to beat traffic and, perhaps, file for refunds.
The team that opposing coach Jon Cooper had (slyly?) anointed a “defensive juggernaut” on Monday couldn’t box out a crease or clear a zone to save its life on Tuesday.
“Pretty simple: bad start and lots of penalty trouble,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews summed up. “They stepped up their level, and we didn’t quite do that.”
Captain John Tavares admitted bewilderment — a sentiment surely shared by anyone who watched Toronto’s regular-season cruise and Tampa’s regular-season snooze.
“They’re experienced. They’ve gone through it many times. They understand how to play playoff hockey,” said Tavares, grasping for an answer.
“Tough to explain. We’re disappointed the way tonight went. We gotta be a lot better, no doubt. We have to regroup here, learn from it, have a short memory, and come out with the correct response.”
The players said all the smart things in the lead up, about how they were excited for the opportunity. But it’s clear which bench bears the weight of performance here.
Are those nerves we see? Already?
“I certainly sensed it in the game. You know, we were on our heels a bit early on there,” Keefe said. “Looked like Sammy in net was fighting the puck early on.”
Ah, yes. Samsonov wasn’t solely to blame, but giving up six over two periods, before ceding your crease to rookie Joseph Woll for mop-up duty, is no recipe for outduelling Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“I will play better. I played like (expletive) today,” Samsonov admitted.
So shaky was the goalie, Keefe was asked if he might consider starting Woll Thursday in Game 2.
“Too early to know,” Keefe said.
Take a deep breath, Leafs Nation.
As hideous as these 60 minutes looked from the home club’s perspective — thumped 3-1 at even strength and 4-2 on the power play; giving up backbreaking goals in the final four seconds of the first and second periods — it is only 60 minutes.
“Game 1 is Game 1,” Cooper said, thinking back to last spring. “You think you know what’s going on, but then you get in the trenches, and all of a sudden you lose 5-0 and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, what just happened?’ Going into every playoff series, you’re on a high, you’re feeling good about yourself, your game and everything. And then you just don’t exactly know what’s gonna happen.”
An amateur historian will remind you that the Leafs shut out the no-show Lightning in 2022’s Game 1 — and that blowout served as a wakeup call, not a death knell, for the trailing team.
“We came in here on top of the world after Game 1 last season and felt great about ourselves. And before you know it, you come back after Game 2, and you’re answering the same kind of questions. So, that’s the nature of a playoff series,” Keefe said.
“It’s on us to respond.”
The Lightning have a long track record of doing just that, and within this victory, the Bolts endured game-ending injuries to Victor Hedman, Erik Cernak and Michael Eyssimont. (No update on their health was provided post-game.)
Yet the Bolts had no issue locking up the win with four defencemen, amid greatly exaggerated rumours of their satiated hunger.
“As soon as that calendar switches and that 82nd game is over in the season, you can see kind of that twinkle in guys’ eyes,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.
“You can feel it,” Lightning forward Brandon Hagel added. “This group is just so used to winning that there’s always going to be that switch until that kind of goes away. You got guys that do crazy things in playoffs. Obviously, there’s a switch. They do things that not many people have done.”
Now it falls upon the Maple Leafs to free their minds, unclench their hesitation, get off their heels, and do something not many have done: summon a comeback series victory over Tampa.
“The Leafs might win the series. They might. There’s so much runway left in this. But what I’ve learned over the years is, I sure as hell wouldn’t bet against our guys,” Cooper said.
“You embrace these moments. The atmosphere at the beginning of the game and you’re going through the anthems and the crowd’s going nuts. It’s a wonderful experience. It’s not something you should shy away from. We talk to guys about that: Don’t shy away from this. Embrace it.”
The visiting coach appeared more comfortable sitting at Keefe’s podium than Keefe himself, and at that point you might wonder which dressing room he was referring to.
Fox’s Fast 5
• In the regular season, Keefe went 8-0 on coach’s challenges, including 2-0 on goalie interference.
He threw a Hail Mary by challenging the Lightning’s fifth goal for goalie interference, lost, then watched the Leafs give up a 5-on-3 goal, taking advantage of Keefe’s delay-of-game penalty.
Afterward, he explained that he took a shot challenging Tampa’s fifth goal because he thought the likelihood of hanging six on Vasilevskiy was low.
• Michael Bunting received five and a game for this reckless head check on Cernak, who did not have the puck and needed assistance leaving the ice:
The league will take a closer look.
“To me, it checked a bunch of boxes (to qualify for a suspension),” Cooper said.
Best bet: Bunting gets one game and Calle Järnkrok moves up to play left wing with Matthews and Mitch Marner.
• Tanner Jeannot skated for the second straight day and was in an upbeat mood after Tuesday’s morning skate, all things considered.
“Got lucky,” Jeannot said of the awful-looking right leg injury he suffered April 6 on Long Island.
Tampa’s big deadline purchase is tough, but even he didn’t want to watch the ugliness of his own injury more than once. That was enough.
Cooper was asked how the kid from Estevan, Sask., made such a quick recovery. How could Jeannot already be an option for Game 2?
“It’s called Western Canadian genes,” replied Cooper, a B.C. native, smiling.
• Quote of the day:
“The guys we got, you’re hoping they don’t play like the guys we already have.” —Wendel Clark on the lineup balance Toronto’s deadline acquisitions must provide (via Real Kyper & Bourne)
• Matt Murray is “progressing well” as he hopes to return from a concussion, Keefe said. The goalie has been working out on the ice for a week now, but not every day and not with his teammates.
Toronto recalled Erik Källgren from the idle Marlies — who earned a playoff bye — to be the big club’s EBUG for these do-or-die games.
“I guess there is a new rule or policy in place to have an NHL-contracted goalie on board that’s healthy and ready to go as the third guy,” Keefe explained.