Whenever you get two great teams together for a playoff series, it often comes down to a few plays here or there.

The Maple Leafs made those plays in Game 1. Game 2 was not a completely different game, but this time it was the Leafs making the critical mistakes. One or two errors each period swung the game in Tampa’s direction, and ultimately, they buried Toronto in a hole so deep that they couldn’t recover.

Game 1 was, as I described it then, a best-case scenario for the Leafs. Everything went perfectly, and the Leafs delivered the proverbial punch that knocked Tampa to the ground.

The expectation was a better Lightning squad would brush themselves off and push back in Game 2, and while that was indeed the case, I wouldn’t say that Tampa’s performance was overwhelming or suffocating in Game 2. They were improved, to be sure, but the Leafs were the better team for large swaths of the game.

It was the costly mistakes and the occasional bad bounces that condemned Toronto to a 5-3 defeat to even the series at one apiece. Reasons for optimism are still plentiful, but the Leafs will need to be crisper on Friday.

Turning Points

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA Today Sports

The Maple Leafs controlled play for a wide stretch of the first period. They got the game’s opening two power plays, and despite six shots and five scoring chances, they couldn’t solve Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning came back and counterpunched with a chance or two, but Jack Campbell was equally as locked in. The game was tight, but Toronto was firmly in control.

The first turning point involves two plays — one at the very end of the first period and another at the start of the second.

The Lightning went on their second power play after Alex Kerfoot was called for a rather obvious (and unnecessary) holding penalty, giving the lethal Lightning power play a second crack at it. With under 10 seconds to go, Victor Hedman skated the puck through the neutral zone, entered the offensive zone, and had the puck swatted off his stick by David Kämpf.

It went to the top, where Alex Killorn took a shot that Ilya Mikheyev denied, slowing the puck down as it dribbled to the slot. Jake Muzzin and TJ Brodie converged on Nikita Kucherov, and the puck rolled past all of them right to Victor Hedman all alone in front.

Campbell made his move, Hedman waited to see where Campbell went, and then the big Swede deked and deposited the puck where the goalie wasn’t. With just 2.2 seconds remaining in the period, the Lightning held a 1-0 lead.

Those sorts of momentum-swinging goals are killer, especially when they come in the last moments of the period. I don’t think there is a ton of blame to dole out here from the Leafs’ side of things. Both Kämpf and Mikheyev did their jobs by getting sticks on the puck, and both Brodie and Muzzin were alert to the loose puck. The contact with each other and Kucherov probably did more harm than good, but it was a contested puck that took a strange bounce.

If anyone is at fault, it’s probably Campbell for trying to pull a Hašek rather than letting the play come to him. Had he stayed tight to the post and waited for Hedman to make the move, the period might’ve expired or he might’ve sealed off the shooting angle. That said, it’s hard to be furious at a goalie for not saving a point-blank chance against an elite player who was afforded time and space at the top of the crease.

This turning point isn’t complete by dissecting the goal. It was a deflating end to the period, but it didn’t materially change the flow of play. The Leafs came out of the intermission looking just as strong as the first period, controlling play for the first couple minutes of the second. They created a golden scoring opportunity with traffic in front and the goalie down only for Vasilevskiy to somehow make the save:

If that puck goes in, it’s a completely different game. The Leafs would have tied it, and the train of positive momentum likely keeps rolling from there. Instead, Vasilevskiy held onto the already frustrating 1-0 lead for Tampa, and just a couple of minutes later, the Leafs were caught in the long change, allowing Corey Perry to get a breakaway goal to make it 2-0.

The second turning point came about eight minutes later. The Leafs had inserted themselves back into the game after Michael Bunting’s goal, and it was 2-1 with still half a game to be played. Far from over. They were still leading in shots, and in your author’s opinion, they were still looking like the better team.

The puck hopped over the stick of Muzzin in the defensive zone, creating a look for the Lightning in the slot. The shot never got through properly, ricocheting in the air and landing behind Campbell centimeters from the goal line. The goalie reached back to cover, and after the whistle sounded, Wayne Simmonds jabbed Pierre Edouard Bellemare, who went down hard. The referees put Simmonds in the box, sending the Leafs back to the kill.

On the ensuing kill, David Kämpf was gifted an opportunity to clear the puck but instead of giving it a go with his backhand, tried to pass it to TJ Brodie, who happened to be without a stick. That amounted to a turnover, the Leafs struggled to get back in position, and Nikita Kucherov ripped the puck by Jack Campbell not long after:

After Tampa took a 3-1 lead, Toronto’s energy left the building. The Leafs had a PP chance late in the second period that could have narrowed the score before the intermission and gotten them back in it, but the Leafs badly struggled to gain the offensive zone cleanly. The Lightning seized on the diminished Toronto energy level to strike twice more in the early third period and led 5-1, putting the game out of reach (despite the valiant comeback attempt).

Just before the third goal, the shot count was 17-15 Leafs. By the time the fifth goal went in, it was 32-25 Tampa. For those not great at math, the Leafs were outshot 17-8 over a ~20-minute stretch that decided the game. The third goal took the air out of the balloon, and when combined with the disappointing momentum swing in the late first/early second period, it put the game out of reach.


Notable Performances

Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA Today Sports

Many Leafs had numerous positive moments in this game but also one or two ugly miscues. Such is the case for Auston Matthews, whose thundering hit on Ryan McDonagh jarred the puck free and led to the first Leaf goal, scored by Michael Bunting. That was a positive, but it was also Matthews’ turnover at the offensive blue line that created the 3v2 going the other way leading to the fourth Tampa goal.

I thought Mitch Marner was Toronto’s best player on the ice. He scored another goal, picked up the primary assist on the Bunting goal, and led the team with six SOGs. He also led the entire team (even the defense!) in TOI, logging 23:28, fulfilling his roles on the PP and the PK.

If there is one (very) positive takeaway from the first two games of this series, it’s that the issues that ailed the Leafs the last two playoffs (inability to score/silence from their two biggest stars) are not present currently. The team has scored eight times and Matthews/Marner each have two goals and five points.

Jake Muzzin and TJ Brodie were on the ice for all three PPGs against, which is unfortunate, but they continue to earn our confidence at 5v5. Natural Stat Trick had both in the 65% range for xGF% at 5v5 in this game, and Brodie logged the second-most time at 5v5 in this game among Leaf defensemen.

Muzzin-Brodie stood out as bright spots at even strength, while the Mark GiordanoTimothy Liljegren pair was on-ice against for the fourth Tampa goal (Liljegren was far too passive defensively defending Brandon Hagel). The Morgan RiellyIlya Lyubushkin pair was on the ice for the Corey Perry breakaway goal, with Rielly turning it over in the NZ and Lyubushkin late getting on the ice after the change.

John Tavares‘ 5v5 numbers are fine in this game, but that’s mostly because nothing happened while he was on the ice. That’s a good thing if you’re a Riley Nash-esque fourth-line center, but it’s troublesome when you’re an $11 million, 75-point center.

Tavares was on ice for just 0.16 expected goals in the Leafs favor at even strength in Evolving Hockey’s numbers, despite logging 10:55 TOI at that strength.  Again, it’s good that only 0.11 xGA were generated the other way, but it’s concerning that there was zero offensive pulse. The Leafs need more from Tavares offensively moving forward. His role, — with the way the Leafs’ forward lineup is meant to be structured around the concept of 1A/1B centers — is too important for him to be a ghost.

Alex Kerfoot only played 2:40 on the PK in this game, but he made it count. He was the recipient of TJ Brodie‘s Marner-like shorthanded rush, which Kerfoot buried for the third goal:

Kerfoot also graded out well at even strength and had one stinging shot block early on. After collecting six points last postseason in seven games, the notion of “Playoff Kerfoot” might have some validity to it, one costly penalty aside.

I’m going to talk about this more in the “Storylines for Game 3” section, but the fourth line was a real source of concern. I entered this game optimistic that it could finally be effective enough with two respectable players on it (Ondrej Kaše and Colin Blackwell), but I was wrong. They were caved in at 5v5, creating little offense while getting slaughtered in xG, shots, and scoring chances. To make matters worse, Wayne Simmonds took two unnecessary penalties resulting in Tampa goals. Meanwhile, Tampa’s fourth line scored a goal, drew a couple of penalties, and graded out as their best line. It’s a mismatch at the bottom of the lineup right now.

Jack Campbell emerged from Game 2 looking bad statistically, but I didn’t think he was horrible in this one. 29/34 is not the best line in the world, and Evolving Hockey tacked him with -1.71 GSAx, but he was put in some tough situations.

Ideally, you’d him to come up with at least one save on the first two goals, both of which were one-on-one situations with Campbell all alone against a shooter. But the third goal was scored through a healthy screen, the fourth was an odd-man rush where Campbell made the initial save and didn’t get much help from Liljegren on the rebound, and the fifth was a pass from the wing to the slot on the PP that the Leaf PK did nothing to stop.

In other words, four of the five goals were high-danger looks, and the one that wasn’t involved a screen. Is there a universe where Campbell comes up with a better performance? Yeah, but it’s likely not one where he alone is enough to win this game for the Leafs with the number of dangerous looks they conceded.


Storylines for Game 3

Colin Blackwell, Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Dan Hamilton-USA Today Sports

1.  Stay out of the damn penalty box. In the regular season, the Leafs were middle of the NHL in PIM, while the Lightning were the NHL’s second-most penalized team. Through two games, the Leafs have taken 11 minor penalties to Tampa’s eight (not counting matching minor infractions that result in 4v4). Toss in the Clifford five-minute major, and that’s way too much time that the Leafs are spending on the PK, especially against this Tampa power play.

The Lightning have arguably the best half-wall distributor in the league (Nikita Kucherov) and among the greatest one-time shooters in NHL history on the same PP unit (Steven Stamkos), not to mention an 80-point defenseman at the top (Victor Hedman) and a center with 28 goals in the previous two playoffs combined in the bumper slot (Brayden Point).

The Lightning made adjustments to their zone entry strategy for Game 2 and found much better success gaining the blue line and getting the unit set up. Once that unit is set up, you’re merely hanging on for dear life as a PK group. In addition to improved discipline, the Leafs are going to have to be more aggressive in pressuring the entries in Game 3 and need to be surer on clearance attempts.

2.   On that note, personnel changes are in order. Most notably, Jason Spezza needs to draw back in. I advocated for it on Tuesday, but Keefe left Simmonds in to deal with the physicality, and the result was two costly penalties. He plays one good game offensively out of every five tries, but otherwise, all you’re left with is an ability to hit. That has some value, but it’s greatly outweighed by providing a team like Tampa with extra power-play looks. As I said about the Clifford major in Game 1, the whole point of playing the tough-guy veterans is that they’re supposed to be smart enough to toe the line and not take stupid penalties.

Both penalties Simmonds took were after the whistle infractions, which is even more frustrating. It’s one thing if you get hit with a soft call during the game (that Lyubushkin hooking call was pathetic), but post-whistle penalties are completely preventable. The second one, in particular, was even more incomprehensible knowing Simmonds was cross-checking Perry into his own goalie.

Simmonds has been around the league a long time and everyone is aware of his role. He’s not going to get the benefit of the doubt when he dumps somebody after the whistle. If he’s only contributing thought-less penalties, he should not be in the lineup.

To me, Spezza provides the best chance for the Leafs’ fourth line not to get caved in. Colin Blackwell hasn’t really clicked analytically in Toronto, but he showed solid impacts in Seattle and New York, and Kaše has been a useful player when healthy this season. With a charged-up Spezza in the lineup, I think there’s a chance that could be a more effective line.

At the very least, it won’t wind up in the box constantly, which is an upgrade from the present. Spezza has the scoring touch that could help on PP2 as well.

3.   The Leafs have to get William Nylander on the ice more. I haven’t discussed him much in this piece on account of the fact that he really didn’t play much. Nylander logged 10:28 at 5v5, less than every other Maple Leaf forward in the top nine.

It doesn’t make much sense to me, and while I know Nylander didn’t exactly show out this game (his most memorable moment was failing to take away the pass on the 3v2 goal for Hagel), he looked solid in Game 1 and was a great playoff performer last year, not to mention the simple fact that he was an 80-point scorer this year. That kind of player shouldn’t be buried so far down the ice time list.

I continue to be lukewarm on the idea of playing Nylander with Tavares again, but if Tavares can’t get going on his own, I’m not sure what other choice Sheldon Keefe really has. The lines are fluid and constantly mixing, but they need at least one of Nylander and Tavares to be clicking to win the series, and it won’t happen unless you’re willing to put them on the ice for more than 10 minutes at 5v5.

Whether Keefe comes out with those two together, or if they still have a nominal third line with Engvall, Kämpf, and Nylander, is something I’ll be watching for on Friday.

4.   The top Tampa forwards did a lot of damage on the PP, but I don’t think they were much better than Game 1 at 5v5. Kucherov receives a bit of a bump in his analytics for being on ice for the 3v2 goal, but Stamkos, Point, and Palat were three of Tampa’s worst forwards at 5v5 in Natural Stat Trick. That lines up with the eye test.

They were not on the ice for much of anything offensively at even strength while ceding chances the other way. Tampa’s third and fourth lines had far more success at 5v5 than their big guns, but the PP salvaged the whole performance (yet again, stay out of the box!).

That said, one big gun absolutely came to play on both special teams and at 5v5: Victor Hedman. Marner was Toronto’s best player on the ice, but Hedman was the overall best player on the ice in Game 2. He was dominant in every phase of the game, notching a goal and three assists while owning 75% of the xG at 5v5.

The scoring chances were 11-5 and the high-danger chances were 4-1 in Tampa’s favor at 5v5 with Hedman on the ice. Whether Hedman can stay in beast mode, and if Tampa can generate more from their big guns at even strength, is a key storyline heading into Game 3.

5.   I want to close with reasons for optimism moving forward. The Leafs couldn’t come up with the win in Game 2, but having observed 120 minutes of both teams feeling each other out, Toronto has been the better team so far.

They’ve outscored Tampa 8-5 overall and have been the better team for about 90 of the 120 minutes. The Lightning have shown what we already know about them: They have a great goalie and are talented enough to turn every small mistake into a goal. But they are not controlling play overall when the Leafs are buzzing.

This isn’t to say that the Leafs are going to win this series — there are innumerable ways they could lose yet another heartbreaker to an opponent this good — but I think if the Leafs make some lineup adjustments and clean up some of the sloppiness, they’re still in a strong position to slay the dragon.

As the series shifts to Tampa, the goal is always to win every game that’s played, but in the grand scheme, a split is palatable. If the Leafs go one for two over the weekend, it turns into a best two out of three where the Leafs have home ice in two of those three games. They’re then in a position to defend home ice and get the series done in six or seven.

That’s the roadmap. It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly within reach.