In your heart, did you really expect anything other than a Game 7?

The Leafs never do anything the easy way, and they weren’t about to start tonight.

They did play really well, though. There are a lot of positives the Leafs can take away from this game and bring home with them in front of a raucous crowd for Game 7.

Just like in Game 5 when the Leafs core stepped up for a win, so did Tampa’s in this one. Nikita Kucherov, Anthony Cirelli, and Brayden Point all scored. Steven Stamkos picked up a point. Victor Hedman led all players in time on ice. Andrei Vasilevskiy was exceptional down the stretch.  These are the defending two-time champs. They weren’t going to bow out easily.

It all comes down to a Saturday night Game 7 in Toronto. Buckle up and clear your schedule.

For now, your game in 10:

1.   For once, a game in this series started with a steady run of 5v5 play, which was refreshing. All of the lines got into it, there was a flow to the game, and the hockey was really structured. As the series goes along, the refs are calling less, something we really saw down the stretch in the third and in overtime.

As expected, Tampa Bay went right back to the Cirelli – Point – Killorn unit against the Auston Matthews line. Sheldon Keefe almost instantly started moving William Nylander around, and he had the best chance of the period for the Leafs on a 2v1 with Pierre Engvall that he probably wishes he shot on in retrospect. Nylander was flying all period, and I’d argue he was their best player in the first.

The best early chance for Tampa Bay was off a Steven Stamkos play off the rush where he drove wide and pulled the puck in for a good shot. You could tell that Tampa had a clear mandate to take the body as well.

All in all, it was a good start to the game all around between two good teams featuring a ton of 5v5 play.

2.    In Game 5, Mitch Marner got caught trying to bump the puck back to regroup on a breakout and Tampa burned them on a turnover for a Ryan McDonagh goal. This goal wasn’t exactly the same situation (it was much, much worse), but the general idea applies.

Ondrej Palat was already reading it and leaning towards the drop pass – if you watch the Leafs a few times, you know it’s coming. He’s not even leaning forward trying to stick check Alex Kerfoot; he’s straight-up cheating for the drop pass. There was certainly enough space in front of Kerfoot – and he’s fast enough – for him to move forward with the puck and gain the zone.

At the same time, I have no clue where TJ Brodie was going on the play. If he provided him with a better outlet, we aren’t even discussing this play. It’s 4v4 — you know Kerfoot is not going to dump it in — so you have to at least be in a logical place to receive the puck. Instead, it was a turnover, and another one of those “wasn’t completely awful, but wish he saved it” goals allowed by Jack Campbell.

It feels like for three straight years now we’ve talked about the Leafs getting burned by these drop backs in their zone/the neutral zone at playoff time. The opposition simply sits on it.

3.   The Leafs didn’t have a ton going on in the second period. The best play after that goal might have been Auston Matthews bearing down and winning a battle versus Anthony Cirelli to stop him from collecting a rebound opportunity after a McDonagh shot.

But then the Leafs got a power play, and it was the kind of thing where you wanted to see their power play at least gain some momentum for the team and start tilting the ice. Morgan Rielly was expectedly back with the top unit even though Mark Giordano looked good there in Game 5. William Nylander was on the half-wall to start instead of Marner, and he almost broke through with a few shot attempts (Marner also had a good attempt down low). But the second unit came on, and on the power play breakout, Ilya Mikheyev made a weak backhand pass, it got intercepted, and Cirelli shot out of a cannon down the ice.

To be honest, I was surprised Giordano was even able to close the gap on him and prevent a straight-up breakaway. He did, but Cirelli adjusted and made a great play to spin, shoot, and score.

4.    The biggest shift of this entire game is not one the Leafs scored on. When Tampa made it 2-0, you could feel your mind starting to wander toward what Game 7 was going to be like. Then David Kampf went out with Pierre Engvall and Alex Kerfoot and absolutely dominated the next shift.

Kampf made what would have been the pass of his life to Engvall at the backdoor (I think Engvall was so surprised by the pass that he completely missed it). They then drew an icing, and what happened afterward? The Matthews line came out along with Mark Giordano (and fan favourite Justin Holl), the Leafs won the faceoff, Giordano put a shot through traffic, and Matthews tipped it home.

That’s playoff hockey right there: Win a shift, build momentum, get pucks and bodies to the net. For years, everyone has talked about this group playing on the perimeter. This goal is how you beat good teams and good goalies in the playoffs. It’s too tight to rely on fancy goals all the time.

5.   The goal went to the Leafs’ legs. You could see it instantly, and the Leafs started tilting the ice. It was a little reminiscent of Game 5, where once they broke through, they started coming in waves.

There was also an underrated play a few minutes after they made it 2-1 where Kucherov had a step on Justin Holl off the rush and looked like he was going to go on a mini breakaway, but Holl was able to turn with him and use his reach to poke the puck off him, negating the scoring chance. It helped set the table for a wild final minute.

I’ve watched the second Leafs goal, which went to John Tavares, about 20 times, and I still have no clue what Andrei Vasilevskiy was doing. It was a wrist shot off the rush that was just outside the faceoff circle. It wasn’t even placed perfectly in the corner or anything, but Tavares did shoot it hard, while Jason Spezza did well to drive the net and be some kind of distraction while the puck was bobbling in the air.  Had Spezza not done that, maybe Vasilevskiy is a bit calmer and relaxed to stop the bobbling puck.

Now it was a tie game and just like in Game 5, the Leafs erased a two-goal Tampa lead.

6.   As the period was winding down, I’m sure everyone had the feeling of, “all things considered, this is great that the Leafs are taking this tied to the third period.” But the Leafs were not done at 2-2.

I thought William Nylander was flying all night. His speed was continually causing Tampa problems. And it did again on the 3-2 goal.

We need to start with the full play, though. This came off a defensive-zone faceoff late in the period that John Tavares won cleanly. On a set play, the Leafs’ wingers blew the zone and Morgan Rielly simply flipped the puck high to center. The big play was Alex Kerfoot collecting the puck, winning the battle, and chipping it to Nylander, who suddenly had a little space.

Nylander drove wide hard — just like he did in Game 5 — but this time, instead of dropping his shoulder and driving the net, he threaded a nifty little pass to Tavares in the slot. Tavares did what he does best: corralled a puck in traffic and buried it.

Tavares is still a high-end goal scorer if you give him any time with the puck in a dangerous position, and that’s exactly what he did on this one. It was a full-on goal scorer’s goal type of finish.

7.    In the third period, Tampa started making a push just as you would expect them to, but the game genuinely did not feel like it was getting out of control from a Leafs perspective. They were doing a good job of weathering the push and threatening on the counterattack.  Michael Bunting, in particular, came in on a rush and ripped one high.

One high sticking penalty on a rather innocent-looking play was followed almost instantly by a second high sticking penalty. There’s really not much to say about the penalties. They were unfortunate, to say the least.

The Leafs actually did a good job of killing the 5v3 to start. With David Kampf, and even Alex Kerfoot, in the box, the Leafs went straight to Mitch Marner as the forward. Marner lost both draws.

I wondered if they would debate using an actual faceoff guy and praying he wins it (before getting off), but I guess the coaching staff didn’t want to risk putting out a player who really has not killed a 5v3 all season. It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position to be in.

Eventually, Nikita Kucherov ripped a perfect shot through traffic that Jack Campbell had no chance on. Once again, the game was tied.

8.    Well, we didn’t see any of that intense, full-crowd, late-tie-game atmosphere the past few years. We did in this one after Tampa Bay tied it.

With about six minutes left, it started to feel like a case of next-goal-wins. The momentum was in Tampa’s favour, but again, credit to the reunited Alex KerfootJohn TavaresWilliam Nylander line. They created a shift of absolute domination. It was a patented below-the-top-of-the-circle Tavares shift where he controlled the boards and won battles.

He did it in Game 5 at 4v4 to set up Morgan Rielly for a goal, but this was a heavy 5v5 shift, and it calmed the waters for the Leafs.

Tampa had chances, too. Namely, Brandon Hagel missed a wide-open net off a nice play by Nick Paul. There was also a huge stick lift by Michael Bunting while backchecking Brayden Point in the slot — a potential goal saver.

In the final minute, the Leafs tried to make a little push and loaded up a top line of Nylander – Auston MatthewsMitch Marner. It was the right call, even if it didn’t work (and for regular-season readers, moments like this are why we said they should have put them together during the season to build some chemistry).

9.    The Leafs did not look nervous in overtime. In fact, they generated a number of really good chances — a Mitch Marner mini 2v1 down low, Alex Kerfoot in alone at one point, William Nylander skating down the slot and ripping a shot, and Ilya Mikheyev almost picking up the rebound. Even David Kampf had a familiar chance in the slot off the rush (I guess after sniping on him in Game 3, Vasilevskiy wasn’t about to be fooled again).

But it was Tampa Bay that scored the winner off of a calamity of errors. Marner flipped the puck out to center — he had no options on the breakout — and Auston Matthews blew a tire. Tampa transitioned quickly for a 3v3 rush, but when Hagel went around a flat-footed Marner, Justin Holl had to step up and close the gap so Hagel couldn’t walk right in. It left Point with an extra second of time in front, where he banged home the rebound.

10.    A few notes going into Game 7:

  • Once again, the Leafs’ lines ended up as Bunting – Matthews – Marner, Kerfoot – Tavares – Nylander, Mikheyev – Kampf – Engvall, and the fourth line barely played. Ondrej Kase played the second least of any Leaf forward and has generally been struggling since returning from injury. Whether they continue rolling with him in the lineup is a legitimate question.
  • Conversely, Michael Bunting is working his way back to form. I thought this was his best game of the series. In the first, he had one play where he protected the puck in the offensive zone for around 10 seconds, which allowed the other forwards to change on the ice in Matthews and Marner, and it led to some offense.
  • The top players on the Leafs all brought it tonight. You can’t really say any of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares or William Nylander didn’t leave it all out there. They certainly did.
  • Tampa did end up scoring on the 5v3, but I thought Jake MuzzinTJ Brodie did a really good job of making them take so long to do so. Muzzin, in general, has been really good for a few games now, but he took some heavy hits tonight, so hopefully he is okay. A healthy Muzzin makes a world of a difference. He led all Leafs skaters in ice time.
  • Sheldon Keefe loaded up the top line at times, and he loaded up for defensive-zone draws at times. He ran three lines and three defense pairings as best as he possibly could. You can only do so much from his end, and I thought he did a good job of generally putting the right players out there at the right times.

It comes down to Saturday night. See you all then. Just win, baby.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts