The Maple Leafs will need at least 81 games to punch their playoff ticket after dropping a 4-1 decision to a hungrier, more organized Tampa Bay Lightning team on Thursday night.
Your game in ten:
1. Some jokes have been made about the Leafs losing a big game to the “Tampa Bay Crunch,” but this was a classic case of one team’s best players playing better than the other team’s best players over 60 minutes of hockey. The three best players on either team tonight: Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Nikita Kucherov. All high-end players (‘elite’ as far as Kucherov and Hedman are concerned) in their primes, all with ample big-game experience, and in Hedman and Stralman’s case: two defencemen who were better than any of the Leafs’ six (that’s two games in a row now that the Leafs defence couldn’t cope with a fast, aggressive forecheck… not that those are the only two occasions this season. They also don’t have a reliable go-to pairing for handling the best players in the league. Thus why they’re bottom-ten in the league in goals against despite good goaltending).
2. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said it before the game: Our team goes as Victor Hedman goes. He played 28:32 and picked up three assists. He dictated the game from the backend, driving play to the tune of a 59% of on-ice shot attempts over 22 minutes of even strength ice time. Try counting up all of the good plays Hedman made tonight – moving the puck, step-ups up at the offensive blue line, defending off the rush, defending the cycle, breaking up plays with his huge reach, muscling players off the puck – and you’ll lose count pretty early on. It’s true that half of the Lightning roster is missing at the moment, but they still had an elite number-one defenceman playing for half of the game.
Hedman played over four minutes more than his season average. Palat, Kucherov and Point played between 19 and 22 minutes. Hedman had three assists, Palat had two, Point scored twice, and Kucherov scored the game-winner.
3. The Leafs’ best players obviously weren’t at their best tonight. Matthews was the best of the rookies; he had his moments early and fought through the toughest game he’s experienced as an NHLer in terms of physical punishment, but he didn’t generate the scoring chances we’re accustomed to. Marner and Nylander both fought the puck most of the night and put just two shots on goal between them. The Kucherov line got the better of Zaitsev and Gardiner, while Morgan Rielly got turned inside-out by Kucherov for his goal.
This doesn’t mean the Leafs’ young talent can’t handle big games or will never be able to, or that the kids suddenly contracted Leaf disease. Before the Caps game, they won seven “big games” in their previous nine (with one OT loss) to put themselves in a position where any slip up by Tampa or New York, or the Leafs splitting the next two, means they’re in. Leafs fans would’ve killed for this deal to be offered to them before the season.
4. It also goes without saying that the Wilson teams and non-lockout-year Carlyle teams were never close to this position at game #81 (93 points). The closest was Wilson’s Leafs in 2010-11 with 85 points. They finished eight points out of a playoff spot that year.
The Leafs are 24 points ahead of last season’s total with two games to go.
5. At risk of sitting on the fence/stating the obvious: There’s no reason for panic yet, but there’s also cause for mild concern given the opponents on the weekend and the fact that there are two teams chasing the Leafs, not one. Meaning, a loss on Saturday to the Penguins plus just one of the Islanders (vs. New Jersey) or Tampa Bay (vs. Montreal) winning means that the pressure is massive on the Leafs vs. Blue Jackets on Sunday, and Columbus will have the motivation of avenging a bad loss to the Leafs in their last meeting.
That said, the Blue Jackets and Penguins officially have nothing left to play for this season — not even home-ice advantage, due to the Penguins’ five-point lead with two games to go. The Leafs will start Andersen in both games if they need to, likely against backups at the other end. Not to mention both teams could rest players.
6. The Leafs also lost the goaltending battle tonight. The Kucherov goal was widely praised as a nasty snipe on Twitter, and it was indeed a quick release after some beautiful moves to create the opening, but Frederik Andersen got beat to his near post there and wasn’t square (I’ll allow for the possibility that the puck took a touch off of Polak’s stick blade there as well). He then lost track of the puck prior to the backbreaking 3-1 goal. Andrei Vasilevskiy made some big saves early at the other end – a point-blank stop on Bozak on the power play, and another save on the power play on a one-timer by Kadri in the slot, both stand out – and it wasn’t really that surprising to see him come out like a man possessed for this game after the Leafs chased him from the net the last time out.
7. On that note, in addition to this being a total do-or-die game for Tampa while the Leafs get to fight another day, it’s worth a reminder that the Leafs embarrassed the Lightning the last time out, with Vasilevskiy getting an early yank. Teams that are used to winning don’t usually let that happen two meetings in a row.
8. Worth noting that Andersen has bounced back consistently following bad starts this season. Drop his rough start (first five games) due to the injury sustained before the season, and Andersen is 10-2-2 with a .935 save percentage following losses in which he’s allowed three or more goals.
9. Thought the second-period review of Andersen’s amazing glove save was a perfect demonstration of the arbitrariness of the offside review. One problem with it – and there are a few – is how far do you roll it back? Drouin was clearly offside on a play that underwent a goal line review. The officials correctly ruled the puck did not cross the line, but they couldn’t take into account the offside just before. Therefore, the faceoff ended up inside instead of outside of the Leaf zone. What if Tampa scored right off the draw?
10. Let’s finish with a few positives tonight: Matthews survived a dirty knee-on-knee no worse for wear. I thought Kasperi Kapanen showed a level of physicality tonight that we hadn’t seen from him before. Also: We’ve got meaningful hockey ahead of us in the final weekend of the regular season, and the Leafs are in the driver’s seat.