After a year of talk, a bunch of trades, and different line combinations and special teams units, the new Leafs looked a lot like the old Leafs to start the playoffs.
Unprepared, nervous, and lacking discipline, Toronto gifted Tampa Bay Game 1 and showed little fight once the game was out of reach.
Your game in 10:
1. The first shift of the game set the table for the exact matchups we discussed heading into the series. Tampa Bay — who declares their lineup first on the road — started with the Anthony Cirelli line, and the Leafs countered with the Ryan O’Reilly line. After the Leafs iced it right away, Tampa immediately put out the Brayden Point line and started flipping the matchups on their head.
The first minute was a chess match, and the Leafs were tentative throughout it. There was a needless icing after winning the opening faceoff.
A few shifts later, Darren Raddysh skated through the neutral zone untouched, gained the line with ease, and got a shot off. Shortly after, Zach Aston-Reese was weak on the puck, the Leafs didn’t get it out, and Corey Perry was able to circle behind the net. Justin Holl tried to cut him off, but against an attacker rounding the net, he can’t make zero contact with Perry’s body there. He has to hit him in some capacity.
Holl didn’t, and Perry walked out and got a shot off before Pierre Edouard Bellemare put home the rebound. It was a fourth-line goal for Tampa — a big story last year — and just a really poor tone to start the game overall for the Leafs.
2. In the morning press conference, Sheldon Keefe stated, “Generally, you just try to make it seem as much like a regular game day.”
It struck me as a bizarre quote at the time. This is not just a regular game day. It’s the playoffs. Everything has to elevate across the board as you’re entering an elite tournament against a team that has gone to the last three Stanley Cup Finals and has won two of them.
I get the sentiment — he’s probably not trying to overhype it too much — but they came out for a game in April like it was the middle of November. They haven’t started almost any playoff game under Keefe on time, including the ones they actually win. The approach has consistently been easing into games or making furious rallies once they’re trailing.
They can’t get away with that through four straight series. Good teams do what Tampa Bay did tonight — they come out with their hair on fire, ready to take it to you.
The fact that the Leafs were at home — with a crowd that was absolutely rocking — only compounds matters. It’s fine that they scored right away and the team was a little flat; it happens. They can recover from that, and it’s not that uncommon. But they were down 3-0 after the first, and it arguably could have been worse.
The Leafs played maybe four reasonable minutes of hockey through the opening 20. They were just completely unprepared on all levels.
3. Tampa’s second goal reminded me of Brayden Point’s overtime winner as Mitch Marner — who did it then and did it again tonight — meagerly flipped a puck to center to get it out. Flipping a puck up to the middle of the ice and barely making it to center ice sets the table for what happened next.
All the other team has to do is bat it down and charge right back up ice. There is no relief. Either flip it further down or eat the icing, but this flip to center — where the team can catch it and shove it down your throat — places it on a tee.
It wasn’t even a race the Leafs had a chance to win. The puck was flipped up to Ryan O’Reilly and John Tavares, who aren’t burning by anyone at center. Making matters worse, Marner flipped it out and then got off the ice, which created more space off the rush as Cirelli skated up the middle and dished it off to Brandon Hagel, who ripped a shot high that handcuffed Ilya Samsonov.
I didn’t love the rebound from Samsonov, but look at the shot coming in and the numbers the Leafs had in place:
The Leafs have to box out better there. Tampa can’t get to that puck and bat it in the net on the rebound, which is exactly what happened. Mark Giordano really struggled in the first period in front of the net.
4. Tampa owed the third-best power play in the league during the season, and when the Leafs went 7/7 against them a week ago, it almost felt like a bad thing to me. It gave Tampa a bunch of tape to review in a meaningless game as well as a little chip on their shoulder.
Tampa’s power play was great in this one. With a man advantage to end the period, Tampa entered the zone with ease with 17 seconds left, which was reminiscent of the end of the first period in Game 2 last year.
The Leafs have to buckle down to end periods. Once they entered, the puck got to the net, and Noel Acciari didn’t make a play on the puck twice before standing right in the middle of the hashmarks as Mark Giordano didn’t roll out to the wall fast enough. There was no exchange there.
On the other side, Justin Holl actually lingered out to Stamkos to cut off that one-timer, but nobody was close to Kucherov, who ripped home a one-timer.
5. I was fascinated to see how the Leafs would respond in the second period.
The first thing of note is that Keefe didn’t change anything. The lines remained the exact same. John Tavares came out flying — trying to throw the body — and his line with Ryan O’Reilly and William Nylander was stringing together some decent shifts, but the Leafs really struggled to generate much.
The Victor Hedman injury really appeared to swing the game. Hedman didn’t even play seven minutes on the night; going into the series, I would have thought he’d have to play closer to 25+ per night if the Lightning were going to have a chance. Even with the absence of Hedman, the Lightning were still generally in control of the game until Erik Cernak was baited into a dumb penalty by Michael Bunting.
The Leafs got their first power play of the night and capitalized. Mitch Marner did well to freeze the defender with a fake before passing it low to Tavares, who found ROR quickly in the slot. This is the element that ROR brings which is a little different from Nylander.
PPG FOR ROR!!! pic.twitter.com/uPNC4gZyO6
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 19, 2023
However, as we saw shortly after, Nylander also brings something to the power play.
6. With the game at 3-1, Morgan Rielly joined the rush, giving the Leafs an opportunity at a 2v1 with Ryan O’Reilly. ROR did well to hold up to allow Rielly time to catch up before trying to saucer a pass through. Colton tripped up Rielly, and the Leafs got a power play out of it.
The top unit with ROR started the power play, but they didn’t create much and even looked out of sync as Mitch Marner threw a puck away when attempting a pass to Auston Matthews. William Nylander came on after, but some of the Leafs’ top players — including Matthews — stayed on.
That’s why I’m not too fussed about the whole kerfuffle about Nylander not remaining on the top unit. They will get him time there when it’s not performing, and really, the power play is one thing they shouldn’t need to worry about with him.
On the goal, Nylander made a great play to wait for the shooting lane to open up, and John Tavares did a great job setting a screen in front as Nylander ripped it in from the top of the circle.
😎 PLAYOFF STYLES 😎 pic.twitter.com/X4CTfGq4QI
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 19, 2023
7. The Leafs made it 3-2, the building was absolutely rocking, and then Jake McCabe laid out Michael Eyssimont. The arena was loud, and McCabe was chased around the ice by Nick Paul, who wanted to fight him. Amid the chaos, Tampa Bay went on the rush, and David Kampf was called for a very weak slashing penalty, to state it mildly.
With Hedman out, the arena loud, and the Leafs closing the gap on the scoreboard, they needed a big kill. They didn’t even come close.
I’ve watched the goal about 10 times, and I still have no idea what TJ Brodie was thinking. He skated all the way to the opposite corner to help Justin Holl in a battle.
I mentioned in the series preview that Brodie was making some head-scratching decisions in the last few weeks of the season. This was clearly another. There is no reason for two defensemen to be in the same corner on the penalty kill. The puck went to a wide-open Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point beat Brodie back to the net, and it was an easy goal. That was a gift.
8. At 4-2, the game still felt very much within reach, especially with Hedman out. Michael Bunting then made head contact with Erik Cernak, which resulted in a five-minute major.
To me, it was absolutely the right call. You can visibly see Bunting lean into it at the last second. It was not two players randomly bumping into each other. Whether he meant to make head contact or not, he did. That’s a five-minute major, and there’s a good case for it to be a suspension.
Bunting gets the boot for this hit pic.twitter.com/PBVtnu3QZn
— Spittin' Chiclets (@spittinchiclets) April 19, 2023
Bunting’s antics have been a story for the second half of the season. He has been demoted, he has struggled for large stretches… It’s constantly something with him. The refs have turned on him — and there have definitely been plays where he deserved better — but he has also visibly dove and the Leafs have benefitted at times when they really shouldn’t have. That type of stuff usually evens out.
Tampa scored on the power play to make it 5-2. I didn’t think the puck went in as Perry and Colton jammed the crease. There was not indisputable evidence that it actually went in.
After it was called a goal anyway, the Leafs challenged it for goalie interference, and it was definitely not goalie interference. This wasn’t even a hail mary where we could squint and try to understand Keefe’s logic. The review was over so quickly I’m not even sure they watched it twice.
The result was that the goal stood, the Lightning went to a 5v3, and they scored right after it expired with under a second left in the period to take a 6-2 lead into the final frame.
9. Tampa Bay came out for the third period with four defensemen, two of them in their first-ever playoff game. Ilya Samsonov was pulled for Joseph Woll, which was completely fair and justified.
The Leafs barely pressured the Lightning, and they did nothing to put together a good period in an attempt to build something for the next game. In fact, with Tampa down three skaters, the Lightning actually scored the next goal in the game as Justin Holl was caught sleeping instead of tracking Ross Colton off the bench. Nick Perbix, who had all sorts of time to look up and rip a pass, put it right on the tape, and Colton went down on a breakaway and buried.
The Holl tracking (or lack thereof) was bad, but part of the story is just the complete lack of pressure the Leafs put on Tampa’s defense. They largely hung back, and when Tampa had the puck, they were generally able to dictate play. When the Leafs were in possession, the Lightning were tight in the neutral zone and closed gaps quickly.
Schematically, the Leafs were outdone in the neutral zone all night.
10. I saved this point to talk about the game at large. There is very little to discuss in terms of line matching and strategy. What can you evaluate when the team plays so poorly?
Despite the Leafs shaking up lines all season, Keefe refused to until he was forced to by Michael Bunting‘s ejection. When the game was over in the third period, they showed nothing. There was no fight to their game, no emotion, and no attempt to win a period to build momentum for Game 2. They largely just coasted through the period.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner picked up a five-on-five point for teaming up on a goal when the game was over in the third, but when the game was within reach and when the team needed their top players to settle the game down after a poor start, they weren’t at their best. At times in the first period, they did generate some decent shifts, but they weren’t enough of those from the whole team, which goes back to the argument about whether they should be paired together at all.
The Mark Giordano – Justin Holl pairing has been excellent this season, but they were awful tonight. Both of them. Again, Morgan Rielly has been asked to play with a third-pairing defenseman and be a difference-maker.
It is early, but the Leafs need to figure this out quickly or else the series could get away from them.