The Leafs hold a 2-1 series lead over the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. What a feeling! Game 3 was an up and down performance for the Leafs, who started off firing for the third game in a row but then fell into a bit of the protect the lead trap as the Lightning started to push for goals. It was a pretty standard NHL playoff game where the minute you think your team is going to be fine, they immediately make you regret everything ever and have you standing on eggshells for the last period and a half of the game. Winning when you’re not at your best is paramount in the playoffs and rarely have the Leafs done that over the past five years. If anything, it has been the opposite. They usually lose games where it seems like they couldn’t have played any better. But this was a different story, and it should give Sheldon Keefe and the team even more confidence that their group of men is superior to Tampa’s.
I say it was not a five-star performance from the Leafs because of stats like these.
Not good enough from the big line at even strength tonight, but they did look sharp on the power-play. However, you need to put up a fight in matchups like these cause they are just too important in the overall story of a game. The Leafs need their best players to be beating other teams’ play players because that is where their strength lies. In all honesty, not many of the forward lines consistently played well at five on five, and Matthews still ended up with an over 50% share of expected goals at five on five. The most impressive Leaf forward tonight was arguably Jason Spezza, whose xGF% was at 89%, albeit in just eight minutes of action. But he, too, looked comfortable out there, and his playmaking created a few chances for the second power-play unit.
In terms of game-specific things, it was a big bounceback for the power-play, which is where the Leafs got practically all of their good chances tonight. The puck was moving quickly and effectively, and I thought their first power-play of the night, where Rielly scored, set the tone. The buds almost iced it at the end of the second period with some superb passing and moving, but Vasilevskiy made some big saves, including this one on Nylander.
I didn’t think their third period was terrible. Of course, you will give up chances when you’re holding a two-goal lead in the last frame, but it wasn’t like Campbell made five or six incredible saves. That’s not to say Soup wasn’t brilliant tonight. He was steady again and made the big save when he needed to, such as this on one Nick Paul.
Sidenote on that clip; Yet again, just an atrocious, non-sensical, absolute guess of hooking call by the referee on Muzzin there. That is never, ever a hooking penalty. The puck has already left Paul’s stick! Thankfully, it didn’t cost the Leafs as Campbell made another great save on Stamkos, but something needs to be done about these referees because it will eventually cost some team in an important moment.
Anyways, back to Jack Campbell. So happy for him and his ability to overcome the midseason struggles. We needed him so desperately to be composed in net, and he’s done that and then some. He was the first star tonight, and I think he’ll continue to rise to the occasion as we move along. Big shoutout to the Giordano-Holl pairing, who had a strong game as the defacto third pairing. Some clutch clears by Holl on the last couple of power-plays for Tampa to make up for his lousy penalty in the second period.
Overall, a game that the Leafs kind of had to have? You don’t want to be in desperation mode in game four, realizing you could potentially go down 3-1 in the series and they came out and got the job done. But it does not represent a verdict on this team just yet. They did a similar thing last year against Montreal and still managed to give it away. Nonetheless, tonight was another piece of evidence that we can file under the “this might be different” tab. See you Sunday.