Leafs Game One Recap: Punched in the Face

Well, that sucked. Not really sure where to start after probably the worst performance of the season from the Leafs. Usually, they drop this absolute stinker in game seven, so I guess it’s good that they got it out of the way, hopefully. Let’s start with the atmosphere because it was great, objectively. Scotiabank Arena is, for the most part, a bit of a church during the regular season, but the energy when playoffs roll around cannot be denied. Sadly, the actual play on the ice lacked less energy than the O’Dog after he plays 18. It was the complete polar opposite of the Leafs’ game-one performance last season. The Leafs were on the back foot right off the bat. They were not anticipating things well and looked scared to make a mistake. Then, they made a mistake, and it ended up in their own net.

Zach Aston-Reese ended the season playing well in games that did not matter a lick. However, for most of the season, he did not make an impact and realistically hurt the team more than helped. His turnover for the first goal was a play that just shouldn’t be made by an NHLer.

Not exactly sure what he is thinking here, but it is clear he did not want that puck on his stick. Unfortunately, the Leafs are a step behind from there and suddenly are down one zip. The Leafs lost the fourth-line battle all night, which has been a problem all year. The Lightning’s fourth line is not particularly fast or skilled, but they have been a thorn in Toronto’s side for the past two years now, and the Leafs need to figure out a way to win those minutes. Look for a change on that line in game two.

The first period only got worse after that, Toronto struggled a lot, breaking the puck out, and the Lightning did not stop pushing. As a result, the Leafs found themselves in a 3-0 hole after 20 minutes. We often remember vividly the times teams come back from down 3 goals in the playoffs, but that is partly because it is so rare. You cannot go down three goals to a team with Andrei Vasilevsky in net because even if you manage to come back and make it a game, your margin of error is so tiny. 

The Leafs did manage to make it a game, though, thanks firstly to Michael Bunting’s ability to draw a penalty (more on him later).

The powerplay took their chance, and Ryan O’Reilly finished off an excellent passing play. Then, more momentum for the Leafs as they killed off a Tampa powerplay with a lot of big shot blocks that got the crowd roaring again. The Leafs were starting to get some open space at even strength thanks to their speed and some physical, ferocious forechecking. All this pressure led to a second powerplay where Willy Styles joined the party to cut the lead to one. 

There was a feeling of expectation starting to brew in the crowd. You could sense that the Leafs were starting to take over, and this would be one of those nights Leaf fans wouldn’t soon forget. That is until Wes McCauley decided that the party was over and everyone had to go home. Okay, maybe that is a bit dramatic, but this is an unusually soft call to make in an NHL playoff game.

Stick-on-stick checks ARE allowed in hockey. If that was called every time, then the NHL would never complete a hockey game. As Omar points out, how is what Kampf did different from what Corey Perry does just a second later? These kinds of stick checks happen nearly every battle, and this was a call I don’t think I have ever seen made before in a playoff game. On the subsequent powerplay, Brayden Point restored the Lightning’s two-goal lead, and all the momentum and crowd energy the Leafs had built up was gone instantly. 

Things went from bad to downright catastrophic for the Leafs just a few minutes later when Michael Bunting clipped Erik Cernak in the head, who did not have the puck, triggering some Leaf fans to relive their trauma from Nazem Kadri’s reign with the team. Here is the play,

It is undoubtedly interference, and it is undoubtedly an elbow to the head. It is entirely unnecessary and a classic example of Bunting losing his head. If you do not want NHL referees to pick on you, then don’t do stupid shit. I would be pretty surprised if he avoided suspension, but I am also 100% George Parros has no fucking clue what he’s doing, so who knows. It certainly fits the bill of what the NHL is trying to rid the game of, and rightly so. Contact to the head is bush league, no matter how it happens. 

The game was over from there, and everyone should have gone home after the second period. No one was good, but the fact that Marner and Matthews ended with five points combined is a prime example of why points do not tell the whole story. Marner especially looked lethargic and uninterested in parts of the game. Some of his misplaced passes were embarrassing, and it reminded me of his play during the Montreal series in 2021. Matthews was at least involved in some five-on-five chances and drove play here and there, but he also needs to be better. Now’s the time, guys, I am not sure if you know, but this is your last chance together because there is absolutely no way this core is running it back if it happens again. 

Now, a couple questions.

How is Wes McCauley an NHL referee?

Look, Wes McCauley is a shitty ref, but so are pretty much all of the refs in the NHL, so I have no problem with him getting paid to be bad at his job. However, I do have a problem with him reffing a team with a head coach who testified against McCauley’s brother-in-law in federal court! Yes, you read that right.

I am not a lawyer, but this seems like something more people should know about. People gamble real money on these games, by the way! 

Do you think there will be lineup changes?

Again, I really would be shocked if Bunting is not gone for at least a game, so yes. Matthew Knies will see the ice in game two, and the Leafs will be better for it. I hope Knies is put with Matthews and Nylander and Keefe reunites Marner with O’Reilly and Tavares because I think it gives the team more balance and variety. Other than that, I would like to see Timothy Liljegren jump in, even if that means going 11 forwards and 7 defensemen and taking out Aston-Reese. Mark Giordano and Justin Holl struggled quite a bit, and Liljegren is good at getting the puck out of the zone confidently and safely, which was the Leafs’ biggest problem tonight. Ilya Samsonov was not good tonight, but he deserves a chance to bounce back, but if he stumbles in game two, then you have to look to Woll or Murray. Lastly, play Nyladner more! He had less than seven minutes of ice time at the second intermission. That cannot happen. I do not care how many penalties the Leafs take, get him out there.

There is no professional sports league which has greater variance than the NHL. There is no difference between losing 7-3 or 2-1 in overtime. See you on Thursday. 

(Also follow @Tictacomar on Twitter because he’s great and thank you to him for the clips).

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