If we are going to be completely honest about this playoff series, the Maple Leafs really didn’t deserve to be up 3-1 based on the run of play.
They gutted out great comebacks and scored some timely goals, but if you keep playing like that, you are going to get burned eventually.
The Leafs were (a bit) better this game, but when they are regularly getting outplayed, it’s hard to win a series in just five games.
And so now we go to Tampa up 3-2. Just like last year.
Your game in 10:
1. Sheldon Keefe carried over the same lines from the third period of Game 4 as Auston Matthews paired with William Nylander, John Tavares paired with Mitch Marner, and the bottom two lines remained the exact same.
On the Tampa side, Michael Eyssimont returned to the lineup in place of Tanner Jeannot and was inserted on the third line, bumping Patrick Maroon down to the fourth line. This was the same Lightning forward group that played in Game 1.
The Matthews line got the Cirelli matchup — and Matthews playing over nine 5v5 minutes at home against them is a tad high considering the Leafs owned the last change — while the Tavares line took the Brayden Point matchup, which left the Ryan O’Reilly line against the Nick Paul-led third line.
Both fourth lines barely played (under nine minutes for all four wingers, although the two centers played more). This was largely a three-line game, which plays into Tampa’s hands. They have forward depth, and they like those matchups.
2. As we have almost become accustomed to at this point, it was a slow start for the Leafs. The Alex Kerfoot – Ryan O’Reilly – Noel Acciari line was hemmed in — including an icing — for a two-minute shift. Alex Killorn fired a nice shot off the rush, and Tampa generally dictated play in the first few minutes.
It is fitting, then, that the Leafs scored early off a transition from defense to offense. John Tavares picked up the puck at his own goal line, skated right down past center ice, and passed it to Mitch Marner standing at the blue line, where Marner deflected a soft chip in off the boards. Tavares kept skating to force the turnover on Mikhail Sergachev.
There are two things the Leafs can exploit here. One is the soft chip off the wall that makes the Tampa defensemen turn around on their side (as opposed to a hard shoot-in that rims out to the other side of the zone). The second is Sergachev, who has been victimized a number of times in this series with poor giveaways and puzzling decisions. He is there for the taking.
Tavares borderline put the chip-in right on the tape and then just went and got it back from Sergachev before throwing it in front. Matthew Knies wasn’t able to control it, but it worked out well as the puck found Morgan Rielly, who walked in all alone and beat Andrei Vasilevskiy cleanly.
RIELLY RIPS!! 💥 pic.twitter.com/yOZlFJmCd7
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 27, 2023
We’ve been saying it for a few games now, but Rielly has really found another level and has easily been one of the Leafs’ most dangerous players of the series.
Kudos to his dad for the celebration, too.
3. Some of the criticisms have been unfair — particularly when people for some reason count power-play goals against his on-ice goals against total — but there is no defending Justin Holl on the first Tampa goal in this game.
Morgan Rielly ripped home a beautiful goal, the crowd was rocking, the Leafs are up in the series and in the game, and everything was coming up Milhouse. Defending a 2v2, Holl stepped up for no reason at center ice, getting beat cleanly and losing his stick in the process.
I imagine his thought process was that Alex Kerfoot was backchecking and available in support. There is some merit to that; Kerfoot played it really poorly and watched the puck instead of picking up Cirelli, who was allowed to stand all alone in front of the net. The puzzling piece of it, though, was Holl stepping up and not getting any piece of Cirelli there. The Lightning forward made a nice play, to be sure, but Holl has to slow him down to some degree.
From there, Alex Killorn dropped it to a trailing Darren Raddysh, who one-timed the puck with numbers in front of the net and Tampa capitalized. The Leafs’ lead didn’t even last 30 seconds. One of the major storylines of this series is that the Leafs have generally been trailing and chasing games.
4. There was a good response to the Cirelli goal. Zach Aston-Reese laid a bone-crunching hit on Hedman that appeared to wind the big Lightning defenseman, and Jake McCabe laid out Brayden Point.
Later in the first period, the Leafs earned a power play and did everything but score. They moved it around well and created some great scoring chances, including a Mitch Marner shot pass that Ryan O’Reilly deflected, a scramble in front with Auston Matthews almost finding John Tavares for a tap-in, and a few point shot attempts with traffic.
Later in the period, William Nylander found Calle Jarnkrok all alone in the slot. Nylander also had a chance in the slot himself. At this point in the game, it appeared that Vasilevskiy settled in and was starting to look like the playoff Vasilevskiy most of us are very familiar with by this point.
Tampa ended the period on a power play and came close a few times, including a Stamkos one-timer that Ilya Samsonov turned aside. Samsonov, too, appeared to settle in during the first period, but the start of the second was a different story.
5. The Leafs got off to a good start to the second, creating some chances including a really good shift from Matthew Knies where he controlled play on the wall for nearly 10 seconds before a Mitch Marner pass found TJ Brodie all alone at the point (instead of walking in, Brodie stood still and eventually had his shot attempt blocked).
At 1-1, it felt like the Leafs were comfortable and were pushing to try to take the lead. Suddenly, on a breakout where the Leafs were playing their 1-2-2 in the neutral zone, Zach Bogosian made one cross-ice pass from just inside his own blue line to Michael Eyssimont just over center. The Lightning forward skated in along the wall before scoring five-hole along the ice.
There will be a lot of attention on Justin Holl, who wasn’t properly gapped up and turned the wrong way when taken wide, which allowed Eyssimont a little more time and space than he should have had. Fair enough, but it’s a terrible goal that shouldn’t go in past Samsonov.
Beyond that, though, what is the point of a 1-2-2 neutral zone trap against Tampa’s third line and third defense pairing? Ian Cole and Bogosian were out there on defense, but only one Leaf (David Kampf) applied any pressure.
As we’ve noted all series, this is exactly what Tampa Bay wants — way too much time and space — and they took advantage. The goal never should have gone in, but the play altogether should have never happened. The Leafs can’t hang back in the neutral zone against the bottom of Tampa’s lineup and still allow them to go right through them and gain the zone cleanly.
6. For what it’s worth, Ilya Samsonov did make some good saves after that 2-1 goal, including on a 2v1 shot from Nick Paul. He also got lucky at one point as Killorn shot a Cirelli rebound wide. Point later hit the post followed by John Tavares clearing a puck in the crease.
The Leafs created some good chances, too, including a power kill shift with Mitch Marner, David Kampf, and Jake McCabe buzzing in the Lightning end and Matthew Knies walking in for a nice little shot on goal. Knies seems to be getting better with each passing game.
Unfortunately, the end of the period featured a garbage hit from Patrick Maroon. He argued it afterward, and while Mark Giordano did turn slightly, he was vulnerable the whole time and Maroon went for it anyway. Giordano did not start the third period on the Leafs’ bench, and it’s fair to wonder how healthy he is at this point even though he did return eventually.
It won’t mean much to some, but I appreciated that Auston Matthews was first in to confront Maroon. While Matthews obviously shouldn’t fight him, he did about as much as we can expect given that you can’t open up the opportunity for Maroon to grab you and fill you in if you’re Matthews. He has come a long way in this regard over the years.
It would have been nice if the Leafs were able to take the power play right away and make Tampa pay for it, but they had to wait through the intermission and started the third period on the power play. It was a lethargic couple of minutes on the man advantage to start the final frame.
7. After the power play and still down a goal, it’s not like the Leafs didn’t have chances or failed to generate a push to tie it.
Most notably, Mitch Marner went on a breakaway where he went down and elected to shoot it. I was a bit surprised by the choice from Marner as we hardly ever see him go down on a breakaway and simply the shoot puck, let alone do it and score.
Marner and Matthew Knies also had an opportunity on a scramble in front of the net later on. Sheldon Keefe did shake up the lines at times, including re-uniting Auston Matthews and Marner.
As the Leafs were pushing, Tampa scored on the counterattack. In the middle of the slot, Zach Aston-Reese — who barely played in this game (under seven minutes) and has played a poor series overall — tried kicking the puck for some unknown reason instead of letting it go by him (the idea that he could have kicked that puck to his skate appeared ambitious at best). It went right to Nick Paul, who got two whacks at it and scored on the second.
Between the 3-1 goal and the first goal, that’s two gifts, relatively speaking, from the Leafs. The Paul goal was also a play where David Kampf got crossed up with Ilya Samsonov and actually impeded his ability to make a save. Just a calamity of errors.
8. At 3-1 and with Vasilevskiy looking like Playoff Vasilevskiy, it was difficult to see a path back to tying this one. The Leafs can only go to that well so many times, but with about four minutes left and down two goals, Keefe pulled the goalie, and the Leafs got one back on the type of play we have seen them turn to repeatedly in this series so far.
Mitch Marner threw the puck to the net from basically the boards, John Tavares was standing on top of the crease, and the Leafs found the rebound — in this case, Auston Matthews did — to score the 3-2 goal. It’s a simple formula and the most consistent way Toronto has found success offensively in this series.
AUSTON BRINGS US WITHIN ONE!! pic.twitter.com/qEu8KZqcqb
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 28, 2023
9. By pulling the goalie so early and going for it, the Leafs ended up playing all of their top players for the majority of the final four minutes. Morgan Rielly had nothing left in the tank by the end as he had to chase down a few icings (and Killorn scored an empty-netter eventually).
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander all played more than any Lightning forward. Ryan O’Reilly played just eight seconds less than Tampa’s leading ice time-getter at forward. Other than the Leafs’ top five, no forward played more than 13:40 (Noel Acciari). Seven Lightning forwards played more than that.
It is hard to constantly play catch up and ask a select few players to make up the difference, especially when Tampa’s goals to that point were scored against the fourth line (twice) and the third line (once).
10. There will be lots of talk about roster decisions and Michael Bunting until the puck drops again on Saturday. Bunting has sat out long enough — they have made their point by scratching him — and he should be back in the lineup. They need his offense and the added depth he brings, but he will obviously need to show that he can keep his emotions in check.
Where the roster configuration really gets interesting: Does Keefe dare go with 11/7? Zach Aston-Reese and Sam Lafferty have really struggled, and the Leafs could use Timothy Liljegren‘s mobility (to say nothing about whether Mark Giordano is healthy enough to play).
The bigger question is whether the Leafs have one really good game in them. Many will point to Game 2, and while I understand the thought process there, the reality is that Tampa was missing their top two defensemen, they were already up 1-0 in the series, the Leafs got steamrolled in the first game, and the series was still in Toronto. If the Leafs didn’t win that game, I would have been floored.
In the games that Victor Hedman has played, Tampa has been the much better team. Cards on the table, there really hasn’t been a single game so far where I’d say the Leafs have played their best hockey. They need to do that one time over the next two games.