Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

If Game 1 was all about a special-teams battle won by the Maple Leafs, Game 2 was all about a special-teams battle won by the Lightning. We have ourselves a tied series.

Technically, the Leafs lost home-ice advantage tonight, but before the series began, if I told you this series would be split 1-1 after two games, would you really be surprised?

On paper, both teams won by somewhat convincing scores, but if you’re the Leafs so far, there’s actually quite a bit to feel good about in this series. That’s not to say there aren’t some areas in need of tidying up.

Let’s dissect it all in the game in 10.

1.  That’s two games in a row now that the Leafs started the first period with the John Tavares line, followed by the David Kampf line, and then Auston Matthews line. It was a fine start by the Leafs, which included two early power plays and a mini-breakaway for Kampf.

Sort of like Game 1, this one could have turned out much different if the team with the early power plays cashed in on the opportunities presented. The Leafs were able to set up their power plays within reason. They were not using the drop pass as much; they actually skated it through the middle of the ice and flipped it to the wall for the player to skate down and make a play, which involved either bumping it to the middle or dropping it to the defenseman. Specifically, the Leafs use Tavares in this role.

Generally speaking, the Leafs should have felt good about their first period. They carried play, and with a minute left, the Lightning had only registered seven shots on net.

2.   It won’t get much attention now, but on a defensive zone faceoff early in the first period, Sheldon Keefe sent out the Ilya MikheyevDavid KampfPierre Engvall line, which has been very good this season. He then followed that up with the Alex KerfootJohn TavaresWilliam Nylander line, which has scored quite a bit this season (even if they gave quite a bit of it back the other way).

The Leafs’ lines are as fluid as I’ve ever seen them. That’s a natural byproduct of experimenting throughout the season, and it is a good thing. Keefe is mixing and matching defensive and offensive lines depending on the situation, which is a change from previous years when the Leafs essentially set their lines before the game and ran them until something forced their hand one way or the other.

It’s a welcome change that won’t receive much attention. They didn’t really lose this game because of any sort of 5v5 issue.

3.    In this game, we saw a steadier diet of 5v5 play, so how did the matchups play out?

The defenseman Auston Matthews played against the most was Erik Cernak, followed by Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. Anthony Cirelli was the forward he played the most against followed by Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Alex Killorn.  Matthews did not score against Cernak, Hedman, Cirelli or Point, which is generally the group of players Tampa will look to match up against him (as well as McDonagh, who did get scored on twice in this game).

The John Tavares line saw plenty of the Mikhail Sergarchev and Cal Foote pairing as well as a steady diet of the Point and Stamkos lines.

The David Kampf line played quite often against the McDonagh pairing or the Sergachev pairing, along with the Stamkos line and the Pierre-Edouard Bellemare line.

In the series preview, we noted the William Nylander line will likely have to feast in its matchup in order to make Tampa Bay think twice. They didn’t in this one, which made Tampa’s life a little easier.

The Tavares line certainly didn’t make Tampa Bay think about much. Ultimately, the Leafs ended up with the top line scoring twice and not much else otherwise; if you’re Tampa, you can live with that in this matchup scenario provided the special teams play out at least reasonably well in your favour.

4.    Late in the first period, Alex Kerfoot took a penalty, and the Leafs couldn’t get it to the intermission tied at zeroes. This was a turning point in the game. At that juncture, they had played an opening period they could feel good about. They generated chances, the crowd was into it, and they generally carried play.

The power-play goal itself was a bit of a broken play, but you’d like to see Jake Muzzin bear down there and at least get something on the puck to steer it away from danger. Allowing a goal with a second left in the period is a backbreaker.

Victor Hedman ended up all alone against Jack Campbell, and in reviewing the goal, Campbell basically took a guess on where the puck was going and leaped in that direction. He could have made himself big and challenged the shot against a defenseman in tight. The goal isn’t on him, but he probably wishes he played it better.

5.    In the second period, the Leafs made an early push to tie the game. They were not shaken by the late goal by Tampa. The problem? Andrei Vasilevskiy.

At the end of the first, a Lightning defenseman (Hedman) was in tight against the Leafs goalie and buried. At the beginning of the second, the Leafs had their own defenseman in tight against the Lightning goalie — who was down and vulnerable — and Vasilevskiy made a big-time save.  Not even a minute later, the Leafs were caught on a sloppy change and Corey Perry capitalized on a breakaway.

The goal was a result of Tampa clogging the neutral zone. The Lightning sat back most of the night waiting for the Leafs to make mistakes with one forward applying pressure and the other two hanging back with the defensemen.

The goal came after a bad pass by TJ Brodie to Morgan Rielly, who was up the ice like a forward on the play and had a man on him in the neutral zone. He chipped it in as much as he could, Brodie got off the ice, and on the change, Perry went on a breakaway and buried.

It was sloppy all around on this goal against. The Leafs were making a line change while the other team had the puck in the second period. They got burned accordingly.

6.   The Leafs lost the game ultimately, but if you want to talk about stepping up in the playoffs and making big-time plays, that’s exactly what Auston Matthews did in his efforts to make this a game. On the Leafs’ 2-1 goal, he threw a big hit on the forecheck, stretched for a second-effort poke check, and then Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting finished it off from there.

That’s a big-time play by a big-time player. In his limited playoff career, it was one of the better plays we’ve seen where it wasn’t Matthews himself scoring the goal. It will receive almost zero recognition because of the result of the game, but that really was a hell of a play and something he can build off of.

In the third period, Matthews also laid out Erik Cernak with a big hit. He has increased his physicality, he has scored, and he has made some big plays through two games so far. He has five points through two games and has generally been dangerous through 120 minutes of hockey.

Matthews can only do so much. At some point, the rest of the team has to pull up their socks.  In the limited 5v5 time they have played so far, this has generally looked like a one-line team, which is what they looked like for large stretches of the regular season (at 5v5).

7.    The Leafs’ penalty kill cost them in this one. In the case of the 3-1 goal, the Leafs had a chance to clear the puck as David Kampf had the puck on his stick, but he was on his backhand, so he elected to bump the puck to TJ Brodie instead of clearing it. The problem was Brodie didn’t have his stick. It resulted in a turnover and Tampa Bay buried it within seconds.

In Game 1, the Leafs’ penalty kill was successful because they were able to prevent Tampa from setting up. In this game, Tampa Bay was routinely able to gain the zone cleanly. They used the middle of the ice more to skate right through the penalty kill before bumping the puck out wide. When they gained the zone on the wall, they often rimmed the puck around the zone to the far side.

If the Leafs want to kill penalties successfully against the Lightning, they have to prevent them from setting it up; it’s nothing but bad news otherwise. On the Nikita Kucherov goal, the Lightning won the faceoff and never fully lost possession. They made it 3-1 and started to pull away from there.

8.    There was a lot of talk about the Leafs’ power play after Game 1, but it was perhaps glossed over that they only really converted at 5v3. The Leafs generated some chances at 5v4 in Game 1 and again in Game 2, but they didn’t score.

The Leafs had the first two power plays of this game and didn’t take advantage. When the game was starting to slip away at 3-1, they went to a power play and the top unit didn’t even generate a shot on net of note.

It’s a game of inches at this point between two top-end teams. The opening faceoff was a scrum, and the Lightning won the battle and cleared the puck. The Leafs’ top unit never gained the zone cleanly from there – a total wasted opportunity to make it 3-2 late in the second period when a goal would have totally changed the complexion of the game. It would have closed the gap on the scoreboard and also generated some momentum in the home crowd.  It’s one thing to create chances and not finish, but they weren’t even close here.

So far, the Leafs are 1/10 on the power play, which is essentially carrying over from their struggles in April.  It is a legitimate concern at this point. It’s not enough to say they are generating some chances at this juncture in the season.

They have to bear down and bury. They didn’t, and almost instantly to start the third, Tampa Bay scored to make it 4-1. That all but iced the game, and they made it 5-1 shortly after to add insult to injury.

9.      After Game 1, we noted that it was important that the Leafs closed the game strongly and didn’t give Tampa Bay anything to build off of heading into the next one. The Lightning did not do that tonight.  The Leafs scored twice, including a shorthanded goal, and they even drew a power play to make their late push at least somewhat interesting.

If the Leafs are looking for positives, they are there for the taking. The power play needs to be better, the penalty kill obviously can’t go 4/7, and the team can’t take that many penalties. But the run of play was not in Tampa’s favour.

In fact, Tampa largely tried to clog the neutral zone and negate the Leafs’ speed. Toronto was able to break through slightly and should rightfully feel like if they clean up the penalties (many genuinely were deserved) and take care of business on special teams, this series is completely there for the taking at 5v5.

10.    The Leafs’ lineup decisions are going to be fascinating moving forward. It was almost impossible to make judgments after a Game 1 that was full of penalties and abnormalities, including losing a player to a game misconduct early in the first period.

That was not the case in Game 2. There were a ton of penalties, but the matchups did somewhat play out. Kyle Clifford’s suspension is now over, Jason Spezza has been sitting up top watching for two games, and so has Justin Holl. The penalty kill got absolutely run over in Game 2, which was the note regarding Holl in the first place – he was a staple on a very good unit throughout the season.

On this night, the Leafs ran four penalty killers on defense: Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie, Mark Giordano, and Timothy Liljegren. The only defenseman who didn’t play any special teams whatsoever was Ilya Lyubushkin. Is that worth a roster spot?

With the Leafs’ power play failing to produce much so far in terms of results, will Spezza continue to sit?

There was little jam in Game 2 compared to Game 1, so will Clifford rejoin the lineup?

There is a lot to sort out here for the coaching staff. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and some of the veterans such as Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Giordano have been good through two games. Secondary players such as Alexander Kerfoot, David Kampf, Brodie, Liljegren, and Pierre Engvall have been fine to good. William Nylander and Ilya Mikheyev have played one good game and one where they didn’t accomplish much, but neither is going anywhere.  The rest of the roster has a lot of questions for the coaching staff to figure out.

This series is there for the taking for the Leafs. Tampa Bay has by no means run them over at 5v5. The penalties have been out of hand in both games. In one game, the Leafs won the special teams battle and therefore won the game. In the next, they lost it and therefore lost the game.

It’s up to the coaching staff now to make the right adjustments and the players to deliver.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts