“You don’t want to give teams life.” — Sheldon Keefe
TAMPA – These Toronto Maple Leafs had two chances to eliminate the Boston Bruins in 2019, one to snuff out the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2020, and three to cut off the Montreal Canadiens’ run to the 2021 Stanley Cup final at the knees.
In every instance, they failed to take care of business.
Lose Thursday night to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it would be nearly impossible to not to let old fears mess with the mindset heading home for Saturday’s potential decider.
“We had opportunities last year, and we didn’t get it done. We know that. Then you get to a Game 7 and anything can happen,” says Jason Spezza.
“There needs to be urgency, a similar urgency to what we had last game to come back from down [2-0]. That urgency has to follow us to Tampa.”
Does this version of the Leafs have the killer instinct it takes to snuff them out in six?
“Until you do it, I don’t think anybody has it,” Spezza said. “You try to learn from mistakes from the past.”
Keefe adjusts power play
In the disastrous opening period of Game 5, the Lightning outshot the Maple Leafs 8-0 on the power play.
Keefe adjusted in the second, swapping out point man Morgan Rielly for Mark Giordano on the top unit, and Giordano drew an assist on John Tavares’s power-play goal that sparked a comeback victory.
“Getting clean looks has been a challenge,” Keefe said. “With Gio’s shot, he’s a little more willing and more programmed to just direct the puck at the net. Morgan, all season, has been more of a distributor up at the top.”
In a series flooded with 225 penalty minutes over 300 minutes of game play (“You’re just waiting for that arm to go up,” Jon Cooper says), special teams have been critical.
And the Bolts hold the edge.
Toronto’s No. 1–rated regular-season power-play has tumbled from 27.3 per cent to 16.7 per cent, ranking sixth among the playoff teams.
The Lightning are clicking at 21.4 per cent (fourth).
“It’s been a weird playoffs for me,” Pat Maroon said. “I’ve never seen this amount of penalties before in a playoffs. It seems like it’s preseason again with all the calls.”
How Cooper is framing the response
In this Series of the Counterpunch, Tampa will look to expand on its silly 16-0 win streak following a post-season loss.
Coach Cooper has been steadily beating the drum: The Maple Leafs haven’t so much as outplayed his group as the Lightning have gifted Toronto way too many “freebies.”
He’s not entirely wrong: Tampa has taken three too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties and a pair of puck-over-glass infractions.
“We’re not making them earn it. We’re kind of giving it to them,” said Cooper, who now pays zero attention to media buzz surrounding a series.
“Not riding the emotions of the game, the series or anything like that. It is complete and utter focus on getting our job done during the game, and not trying to let outside noise from anywhere affect what we’re going to do.
“I’ve learned to take a breath instead of holding my breath.”
Even with the champs down to their last gasp, Cooper has shrewdly tried flipping the weight on his opponent.
“Is there pressure on them? There’s no doubt. They’re humans. They’re going to be feeling it. No question. We’ve been in some of these situations. We have won these type of games before,” Cooper said.
“It’s not like they haven’t thought about this. But on the other side, who knows? Maybe they’re using it as motivation. But until you start winning these games, there’s always going to be doubt in your mind.”
Campbell > Vasilevskiy
Weighing the strengths and weaknesses of these two elite combatants heading into the series, pundits unanimously gave the goaltending edge to Andrei Vasilevskiy — the man with the Cup rings and Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies.
Well, Vasilevskiy is also the man with a .880 save percentage, the worst rate among any goalie in the playoffs with at least three appearances.
Toronto’s Jack Campbell (only slightly better at .895) has a legitimate chance to outperform his more accomplished counterpart.
After getting yanked in Game 4’s disaster and giving up two early ones in Game 5, Campbell buckled down and made a flurry of quality stops, giving the skaters in front of him time to rally and find their stride.
“He’s learning that there’s games within games,” Spezza said. “And those two goals, there’s nothing he can do. He really calmed himself down and was phenomenal for us and gave us a chance. The reason that we win that game is Jack Campbell.”
Campbell, you’ll recall, beat himself up for the softie he allowed to Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher in Game 7 last May, labelling it the “worst goal of my career.”
He has been much kinder to himself this series, despite getting beat by more pucks.
“A lot of adversity in the playoffs, especially over the years,” Campbell says, “but we’re focused on right now.
“The win [in Game 5] really sparked our group and gave us a load of confidence.”
Maple Leafs projected Game 6 lineup
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Mikheyev – Tavares – Kerfoot
Nylander – Kämpf – Engvall
Spezza – Blackwell – Kase
Rielly – Lyubushkin
Muzzin – Brodie
Giordano – Holl