I am not surprised by the fact that the series is 3-1 for the Maple Leafs so much as the manner in which we’ve gotten to this point.
For the Leafs to have been outplayed at five-on-five for sizable portions of three of the four games and be sitting here — to simplify the situation — in large part thanks to clutch production from their stars, the team’s mental resilience, and Andrei Vasilevskiy’s struggles is not how I’d ever have pictured this series playing out through four games.
And yet here we are.
Some scattered thoughts as we pass the time nervously waiting for Game 5 puck drop:
I understand the argument that Michael Bunting is one of the team’s best 12 forwards, the team hasn’t played all that well in these last two wins, and Sheldon Keefe shouldn’t be complacent (i.e. improve the team wherever possible). At the same time, Bunting hasn’t actually been playing that well for a long time now, and I think it’s a careful balance to strike in terms of the internal accountability piece.
I am not really referring to further punishing Bunting for a selfish play that may have cost the team Game 1 (side note: I also don’t believe Bunting specifically targeted Erik Cernak’s head so much as made a reckless play in anticipation of contact off the puck ahead of an imminent puck battle). I am more referring to the bigger picture of Bunting clearly losing his composure — dating back to the regular season, but even within Game 1 itself — and failing to regulate his emotions properly to the point where it became selfish, drew a target on the Leafs’ back from the officials, and overall became somewhat of a liability that wasn’t always offset by his meager production of late. The suspension-worthy hit was just a byproduct of this larger issue.
The other point worth mentioning: The series has kind of settled in — similar to last spring — after a couple of games in which the post-whistle antics and officiating were front and center to start the series. Do the Leafs want to chum the water and potentially entice Tampa into score-settling at this time — with the chance to close out on home ice — and risk leaving a lot of the outcome in the hands of the officials? This type of game didn’t work out for them in Game 1.
I’d also add that the Leafs were in a position to close out the series against Montreal and Keefe started tinkering with the lineup — on defense, in that case — with poor results.
Ultimately, it will be a damned-if-he-did-damned-if-he-didn’t situation for Keefe if the Leafs lose Game 5, but I personally would not have had Bunting in the Game 5 lineup and understand Keefe’s logic here.
Big picture firmly in mind — as well as memories of Game 6 vs. TB, Games 5-7 vs. MTL, Game 6 vs. BOS in 2019 — the Leafs need to continue to eat humble pie after each meal in the build-up to Game 5. They need to recognize this series lead has not been built on, “finding ways to win tight playoff games because we’ve been just as good if not the better team,” and more, “Tampa’s built fully deserved leads in three of four games, and we’ve somehow pulled Ws off, including a minor miracle in Game 4.”
It’s felt like a rope-a-dope act at times in these past few games. Too many lengthy sequences have been played with a general passiveness that is seeping into the team’s game — something that has really been the antithesis of Maple Leafs hockey at its (regular season) best.
For substantial portions of three of the four games, Tampa is swarming with numbers in on the forecheck while keeping their F3 in position and checking back above the puck so well that they’re denying the Leafs the neutral zone pretty effectively. The Leafs have spent notable spells struggling to exit the zone properly and getting easily isolated in the neutral and offensive zones before Tampa recovers the puck, gets up and out of their zone, and right back onto offense.
Of course, there is the balance of making sure not to start giving up a bunch of grade-A looks off the rush — the Leafs have been pretty good in this area — but as a five-man unit, they need to press a little more, get Tampa more on their heels, and tilt the ice earlier in games. When they do this — as they have while trailing in games — I don’t think the Lightning can lock it down as well defensively as they once could with their current blue-line personnel and Andrei Vasilevskiy’s struggles.
If you think about it, the last two games have featured memorable Leaf comebacks, but also don’t forget Game 1 had Toronto on the verge of erasing a 3-0 deficit as well — it was Bunting’s penalty that completely sidetracked a very credible push underway from the Leafs at 3-2.
A Game 2-style start back on home ice for Game 5, riding the momentum of a crowd that is going to be fired up beyond belief, is the expectation here.
One strange — and slightly concerning — aspect of the series so far is that we can’t really be thrilled with two of the Leafs’ three defense pairings so far at five-on-five (Mark Giordano – Justin Holl / Jake McCabe – TJ Brodie). The weirdest part is that a lot of it has been driven by two of the team’s most steady defensive influences over the past few seasons in Giordano and Brodie uncharacteristically throwing pucks away and losing battles around their net.
In particular, Giordano has been on the ice for a team-leading 17 high-danger chances against in just 58 minutes of five-on-five ice time.
Knowing Giordano and Brodie are typically quite reliable — plus the team’s 3-1 series lead — it’s a defensible decision for Keefe to keep letting it play out while keeping a thriving pairing in Morgan Rielly – Luke Schenn together. With this six-man group, the only real options otherwise are Rielly – Brodie / Gio – Holl / McCabe – Schenn, or putting Giordano and Brodie together (a pairing from CGY and briefly in TOR) while keeping Rielly – Schenn intact and throwing McCabe – Holl together. I am not sure any of that is overly appetizing to try right now, nor is inserting Timothy Liljegren at this stage in the series.
The concern is that they’re the two oldest defensemen on the team, and Brodie has battled nagging injuries throughout the season. Hopefully, both Giordano and Brodie snap back to form sooner than later.
Let’s pause for a moment and truly appreciate this year’s Leafs team has Ryan O’Reilly as its 3C and not David Kampf or Alex Kerfoot.
To me, Andrei Vasilevskiy has always been a mere mortal against the Buds, but the Leafs rocking a .873 save percentage and notably winning the goalie battle is a whole other level. Most would assume the Leafs are the team down 3-1 if you read them that one stat before the series.
So far, Ilya Samsonov is embodying the team. There have been some iffy early moments and goals against in these games, but he has shown an ability to stay in the fight so far and bounce back with the next big save. Think back to Samsonov keeping the team one down in Game 3 to set the stage for the comeback to happen, or the big saves in OT — the ones on Kucherov and Stamkos, in particular, come to mind as series-changing.
You wouldn’t be that dramatic to point to Vasi vs. Sammy as the reason this is 3-1 Leafs instead of 3-1 TB. So far, Samsonov is crucially staying one save ahead of Vasilevskiy.
I’ve told myself for years that one of these springs, Auston Matthews is surely going to say “Enough is enough,” and simply take over a few games that will win this team a series. He’s way too good to be denied playoff after playoff… right!? Yet in so many important playoff losses, we’ve seen him strangely pass up shots at key times, struggle to find open lanes, struggle to solve goaltenders with his customary ease, etc.
Game 4’s third period was something else. On neither goal was there even a big celebration from him. There was a, “We aren’t doing this again,” cold-blooded assassin type of vibe to his demeanor.
He’s played solid series before, but dare we declare that Playoff Papi has well and truly arrived…
The idea that any game against this Tampa team is ever going to be easy would be wrong, but Sheldon Keefe made Game 4 harder on his team than it needed to be with the slow adjustment at the start of the game.
In Game 3, the Leafs poached a late goal in regulation, got dominated in OT, and poached a late goal in OT to win it. Marner and Matthews were productive through three games, but as a duo at five-on-five, it’s not like they were linking up for goals and grade-A scoring chances at a pace where it was undeniable that the Leafs needed them together from puck drop. Far from it.
There is always the option to switch it up between and within games — and to be dead set on these combos one way or the other is clearly silly — but it was also clearly the time for the switch, and Keefe waited until they were behind multiple goals. Better late than never, as it turned out.
Even within games, Keefe does — and should — always want to find spots to give them shifts together (after PKs, when chasing the game, etc) and they did combine off that transition play to score the 4-2 goal to get the whole comeback started in Game 4. But TB winning those early shifts and setting the tone that it was essentially Game 3 continued felt completely avoidable.
The projected lines to start Game 5 are encouraging.
Lines at Leafs practice
Jarnkrok – Matthews – Nylander
Knies – Tavares – Marner
Kerfoot – O’Reilly – Acciari
Aston-Reese – Kampf – Lafferty
Rielly – Schenn
McCabe – Brodie
Giordano – Holl
Gustafsson – Liljegren
Mete – Timmins @TSN_Edge
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) April 26, 2023
Morgan Rielly’s shot has been panned by many fans in the past — especially when the Leafs’ power play has hit dry spells with him at the point — and he definitely does not own a bomb, but he possesses that sneaky no-windup snapper that he can get a lot of torque and accuracy with when he leans on it. It’s kind of perfect for this time of year (and apparently against this kind of opposing goalie, in particular).
It’s really how NHL defensemen who score from the outside often have to do it in the modern game in general nowadays with the nature of modern goaltending and the speed of the game creating such a lack of time and space. It’s been money for the Leafs in this series, coming through twice in huge moments.
The team’s defense core otherwise has had few moments getting involved in the attack for quality scoring chances against Tampa. Playoff Rielly’s been massively important to this 3-1 series lead, to state the obvious, between joining the rush, shooting down the wall off of o-zone faceoff wins to create goals, or walking the line and scoring himself.
A big difference that we’re all noticing versus those failed series where the Leafs ran up the shot attempts (and a cursory reading of the stats suggested it was a simple case of getting goalie’d): Especially with the game on the line, the Leafs are currently doing an excellent job of generating traffic and funneling pucks through it for tips, rebounds, or screened goals. There has been a lot more meat and potatoes playoff-style offense everyone in Leafs Nation has been dying for in those critical elimination games where the team has fallen short in the past.
Every forward deadline acquisition the Leafs have made in the past few years has been in part predicated on finding more of these kinds of playoff goals. Ryan O’Reilly has a few goals in tight to the net (as does John Tavares). Noel Acciari has a tip goal (and a nice rush goal, too). Auston Matthews has tipped two in. Zach Aston-Reese jammed in a classic fourth-line goal. Alex Kerfoot tipped in a massive Game 4 OT winner.
Finally, playoff-style goals in bunches.